Film Review: CHAPPIE (2015)

NOTE I: Sorry folks, PAXEast preparations means no video review for this one – at least not right away. Hope you enjoy this text-only version, all the same.

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CHAPPIE is an ambitious, earnestly crafted film that’s also profoundly flawed; in both respects to a degree that one will likely cancel the other depending on the individual viewer.

It’s a work cast in bold strokes, with every thematic and aesthetic element carried to the nearest extreme: The titular robotic hero is supposed to be “childlike,” so he’s realized as literally a titanium five year-old who cowers and sobs when unable to comprehend having been lied to and cries out for his “Mommy” when in danger. In tone and texture (and in approach to the “science” in science-fiction) it’s a kids movie, but realized as an R-rated bloodbath because, well, there’s guns in the story and damned if any of them are gonna go un-shot. South African rave-rap icons Ninja and Yolandi Visser (aka “Die Antwoord”) are stunt-cast as Chappie’s human co-stars – not simply as characters like their stage personas but as “themselves,” in an alternate universe where they’re actual violent gangsters instead of an arty gangsta-rap piss-take.

It’s kind of a mess, in other words, but there’s an energy to it – a real, beating-heart sincerity to the parts that work – that worked for me, in spite of the roughness of everything else. Your mileage will likely vary.

SPOILERS from here on out…

In his overwhelmingly negative review, Devin Faraci pegs post-DISTRICT 9 Neil Blomkamp as “a victim of the auteur theory,” which I’d have to call a fair assessment even as I find myself on the other side of CHAPPIE: The 70s have been over for four decades now, but we’re still overly-invested in the romantic ideal that filmmakers with technical skill and uniquely personal visions should also be free to drive their own narratives. Blomkamp is a visionary and a technical wizard, but being able to tell a story visually doesn’t mean you should also be in charge of what that story is.

This is a filmmaker who can create breathtaking worlds, stage powerful images and communicate ideas and emotions visually with the best of them; but has faltered when asked to arrange those pieces into a cohesive storyline when not afforded the guiding hand of Peter Jackson (who shepherded DISTRICT 9 to the big screen.) Instead, Blomkamp has now made three films wherein he crafts a “narrative” around dropping his Big Ideas into a now-familiar template.

To wit: CHAPPIE once again involves an economically-blighted future wherein an unlikely protagonist finds himself caught between multiple competing, morally-ambiguous interests vying for control of a Big Idea sci-fi technology, wherein everything is eventually sorted-out via a climactic shootout instigated by an evil-incarnate villain rearing their head. Specifically, we’re back in crime-ridden near-future Johannesberg, where policing is being handled by an almost-entirely mechanized robotic police force staffed by semi-autonomous drones called scouts.

The scout’s creator/engineer (Dev Patel) sees them as a step toward his dream of creating actual artificial intelligence, but his boss (Sigourney Weaver) won’t let him test it on the company dime. Instead, he opts to try installing his A.I. program in the mind/body of a broken scout nicknamed Chappie (voice and motion-capture by Sharlto Copley) …shortly before they’re both kidnapped by Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi Visser (as themselves) who were looking for leverage on the police-bots but now see Chappie as potentially more useful. The engineer and the gangstas ultimately wind up in what’s basically a Mexican Standoff shared-custody arrangement of  a robot “child” whose self-aware consciousness is effectiely a blank slate – and whose battle-damage dooms “him” to a brief five days of “life.”

That’s the main Big Idea: Robot-programming as a metaphor for parenting styles. Patel wants Chappie to learn about pacificism and explore his creative side to prove the breadth of his A.I. creation, Ninja wants to teach him to “be a man” (read: be a macho cretin, like Ninja) so he can lend his titanium muscles to heists and Visser encourages him to be himself. This is all complicated further by the presence of Hugh Jackman as a rival roboticist (an ex-soldier rather than an engineer) whose frustrated that the scouts have pulled funding away from his human-piloted Metal Gear-esque behemoth, The Moose, and if you’ve seen Blomkamp’s other two films you know where this is headed (at least until the film throws in another even  bigger sci-fi concept that might’ve been better served as a sequel or a different film) – but it’s interesting to watch it get there.

Let’s be blunt about this: Chappie and CHAPPIE are inseparable in terms of appraisal: If you aren’t charmed by Chappie, the toddler/Terminator/puppy/martyr hybrid, you are going to find CHAPPIE the scattershot scifi movie tiresome and irritating; but if you end up finding Blomkamp’s newest better-than-human Christ-figure (recall DISTRICT 9’s nobly-suffering alien dad Christopher Johnson, another CGI/mo-cap miracle and part of a trend suggesting the director’s preference for technological creations extends all the way to moral superiority) endearing enough – if his infantilized eagerness to please and panicked wailing for “Mommy” (aka Yolandi) when under assault melt your heart rather than making you want to slap him – you’ll find yourselves wanting to excuse the flaws everywhere else.

If CHAPPIE has a central sin, its Blomkamp’s seeming innability to not throw every single idea he has (for action scenes, for dramatic twists, for comedy, for philosophical ponderings) into every project as though he thinks each film will be the last. There’s an entire movie that could’ve been made of the ethical clash over human-piloted vs intelligent robots, Patel’s largely-unaware god complex, Ninja and Yolandi’s shared immediacy in accepting Chappie as a surrogate child but radically different approaches thereafter and even Chappie’s half-understood induction into the Jo’berg gangster lifestyle (my preview audience, it must be noted, never failed to find the robot donning bling, slashing gang signs and talking “street” hysterical); but instead they’re all fighting for space in the same movie, and dramatic subtlty is the first casualty – at one point, Patel literally calls Ninja a “philistine,” to give you an idea where we’re operating at.

The second casualty is any sense of rhyme or reason to Jackman’s bad guy, who glowers in the background waiting for his innevitable chance to go full-tilt evil and provide opportunities for the good guys to prove their metel and pay off their respective arcs (my biggest disappointment: An early gag of Chappie imitating an old HE-MAN cartoon somehow doesn’t pay off with the robot declaring that He Has The Power while dropping an enemy with a sword.)

With a little more room to breath his (Jackman’s) character might’ve worked, but as-presented he’s clearly been cut down to the point where he’s little more than a collection of personality traits that mark you as irredeemably evil in modern sci-fi movies: It’s not enough that he’s a neaderthal luddite who mistrust’s A.I. implicitly and a burly bully who picks on lovable-dweeb Patel at work, he’s also a churchgoing religious nut (he starts berrating Chappie as “Godless!” at one point) and a smirkingly-proud ex-military hardass – which in The Blomkampverse means he’s an amora psychopath whose preference for piloted ‘bots comes down to a gleeful fondness for ripping apart poor people with a cut-rate Metal Gear.

Hell, in case you haven’t accepted him as evil-incarnate after all that, his first encounter with Chappie involves abducting the robot and trying to cut him into pieces in the back of a truck; after which our (child-voiceD) hero refers to him in panicked post-traumatic shrieks only as “THE BAD MAN IN THE VAN!” That’s a level of laying-it-on-thick I don’t think there’s even a working measurement for.

But I can’t lie: I bought in. It worked for me. I’m an automatic mark for characters who’re (literally or figuratively) big loyal dogs, and as borderline-maudlin and manipulative as the proceedings gets (“The bad man in the van hurt me, Mommy! Even though I said stop!” – fucking seriously?) I was impressed how fully they film “went for it” in terms of Chappie himself. It also helps that, while Patel, Weaver and Jackman are more or less on autopilot, Die Antwoord showed up to work. The non-joke joke of the band playing themselves (wearing their own merchandise, listening to their own music) is going to be too silly for many to overcome, but “Ninja” more than adequately sells the idea that he’s something of an overgrown child himself (and that his shitty fathering-style is almost certainly being passed-along generationally); but it’s Visser who ends up being the MVP, with her non-transformation from punk waif to Chappie’s Virgin Mary-figure getting the film as close as it’s going to get to a grownup emotional core in what’s otherwise a hard-R Pixar movie.

I get the sense that, like the similarly-earnest nonsense of JUPITER ASCENDING, we won’t really know what CHAPPIE’s effectiveness is as a film until a generation of kids who see it in spite of its rating grow up and look back on it. As much as I eventually liked CHAPPIE, broken bits and all, I feel like I’m about 20 years too old to love it – but as a kiddie-souled movie with R-rated gore, I feel like it can’t not be fated to wind up as Millennial cult-classic, and I say that with all the confidence of my own generation, currently on Decade Two of trying to convince the world (and ourselves) that THE GOONIES is a masterpiece.

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