Thursday, March 12, 2015

Movie Review: Chappie

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp.
Written by: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell.
Starrimg: Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Dev Patel (Deon Wilson), Ninja (Ninja), Yo-Landi Visser (Yolandi), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Yankie - Amerika), Hugh Jackman (Vincent Moore), Sigourney Weaver (Michelle Bradley), Brandon Auret (Hippo), Johnny Selema (Pitbull).

There are quite a few interesting ideas running through Chappie – the latest sci-fi action film from Neill Blomkamp. His debut film, District 9, was an ingenious sci-fi allegory with a simple aliens/Apartheid metaphor that worked surprisingly well. Yes, it may have been a little disappointing that Blomkamp had no way to end his film other than in an explosive of action sequences – but I enjoyed those sequences, that felt a little dirtier, grittier and more low-tech than most films of its kind – so overall, I pretty much loved District 9. His follow-up film, Elysium, may not have reached the same level – Blomkamp upped the political content in the film, but was also more ham fisted and obvious in marrying it with his sci-fi plot. Still, I admired the film because it really was trying for something more – it had ambition, and if it didn’t live up those ambitions, it’s better than not having them at all. You could say the same thing about Chappie – the film doesn’t lack for ideas, many of them interesting. And Blomkamp seems to have learned not to force his allegory on the film in such obvious fashion this time around. Unfortunately, Blomkamp fills Chappie with too many useless subplots and characters, too many ideas borrowed from other films, that the entire film feels muddled – as it’s spending a lot of time, saying nothing new. The final act is a genuine confused mess – that quite simply doesn’t work at all. Like last month’s Jupiter Ascending from the Wachowskis, I wanted to like Chappie – they are both genuinely strange movies, original, big budget sci-fi films instead of more franchise, that are both obviously their talented makers films. But both film are complete messes – so as much as I wanted to like them, I really couldn’t.

The film opens in 2016 – where in a news montage, we learn that the city of Johannesburg, South Africa have purchased a number of robot police officers to assist their human counterparts. These robot cops have had an almost positive immediate impact on the crime rate – and the weapons company who makes the robots is drawing interest from around the world. The designer, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is proud of his achievement – but has his goals set much higher. He wants to make a truly sentient artificially intelligent robot – and thinks he has finally cracked it. He goes to the CEO (Sigourney Weaver) to get permission to try out his new software on an old robot – that is about to be destroyed anyway. She, of course, says no. He, of course, steals the robot and does it anyway. But he has two problems – the first being that on his way home, he is carjacked by Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) – three low rent thugs who need to make a lot of money quickly, and think the designer of the police robots can help them. They are the three that end up with the robot who will become the title character. The second problem Deon has is that his biggest rival in his company – Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) suspects something is up, and tries to prove it. He has his own police robot – but it’s a huge, monstrosity (that looks very much like Robocop’s ED 209), but is controlled by a human being. Vincent is a little bit of a religious nut – who thinks robots with a soul are dangerous – and although that’s not a bad point, Vincent is portrayed as so violent and insane, you cannot possibly agree with him.

Chappie, the character, starts with the mentality of a baby – and although gets extremely smart, extremely fast, he never loses that childhood innocence throughout the movie. He is torn between two different viewpoints of the world – Deon, who he refers to as his maker, has loftier, idealistic goals for him, but Ninja, who he calls Daddy, shows him the cruelty of the world – and how he must fight. Somewhere in between is Yolandi – Mommy, who he truly loves. Chappie is performed by Blomkamp’s favorite actor, Sharlto Copley – and it’s an interesting performance, which allows Copley a lot of opportunities to be funny, and only slightly annoying. The design of the character is a little too bland and generic – to be truly sympathetic. Sadly though, he is the only character with any sort of complexity. Everyone else is one note – and not very interesting at that. Jackman fairs the best of the human actors, ripping into his villain role – but it’s an ill-conceived character. Still, it’s better than Weaver, who is supposed to be a typical, short sighted, not overly bright CEO – and while Weaver is a great actress, she doesn’t play dumb well – she exudes too much intelligence. Ninja and Yo-Landi, members of a South African rap group, at least seem to be having fun. The worst, and most unnecessary, character is named Hippo (Brandon Auret), a psychopathic gangster, with stupid hair, who basically shouts his every line (and requires subtitles), even though he’s speaking English.

For the first hour or so, Chappie keeps hinting that perhaps it is going to go in some sort of interesting direction. There are a lot of good ideas running through Chappie – including a scene where Chappie asks his maker why he made him just so he could die – a question many people would ask of God – but like all the other interesting ideas in Chappie, the movie pretty much abandons it as soon as it’s brought up. It doesn’t have time for such things – it needs to spend a lot of time blowing crap up. That is a pattern that repeats itself throughout Chappie. Blomkamp abandons any of the original, or thought provoking ideas in the film so it can get to the blander, generic stuff you’ve seen in many other robot movies in the past – everything from the Terminator movies to Robocop, and everything in between. In many ways, Chappie is a modern day Pinocchio story – but again, Blomkamp doesn’t fully explore that idea either.

The ending of the movie is really when things fly wildly off the rails. The film rushes through a lot of plot in almost no time, and then spends a lot of time on a ridiculously ill-conceived (and illogical) action sequence involving Jackman’s killing machine. It then has a copout, emotionally manipulative ending that makes even less sense that what came before it.

I still think Blomkamp is a talented and promising director. His first film got the balance between his ideas and the action he clearly wants to merge. In Elysium, the balance skewed too far towards his ideas that were too obvious. In Chappie, he pretty much abandons his ideas to make a lot of action sequences. Hopefully he gets the balance right again. After all, there aren’t a lot of people who are even trying to balance the two. I wanted to like Chappie – but the reality is, the film simply doesn’t work.

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