Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Dev Patel (Deon Wilson), Ninja/Watkin Tudor Jones (Ninja), Yo-Landi Visser (Yo-Landi), Hugh Jackman (Vincent Moore), Sigourney Weaver (Michelle Bradley), Brandon Auret (Hippo), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Amerika)
Increase in Crime, Societal Breakdown (Early Stages)
“Historically when we look at evolution, it’s not surprising that Chappie’s left turn happened.” “It’s too early to tell how this is all going to play out. I didn’t believe this would happen in my lifetime, but it is happening.” “Downton Johannesburg.” “It’s a dangerous city.” “Each day, more than 300 murders and violent attacks take place here.” “Two officers have been killed, three taken to the hospital.” “A bloody end to a shoot-out between cops and robbers. Another man in blue dead.” “Today we usher in a new day. One that represents the end of crime. The end of corruption. And the start of the rebirth of our city. Welcome to the world’s first robotic police force.” “Johannesburg, South Africa became the focus of the world in 2016 with the deployment of the planet’s first all-robotic police units. Crime levels plummeted and Tetravaal stock skyrocketed.” – Various people during the film’s opening.
There are moments where I gain a profound sense that I have somehow stumbled into an alternate dimension that doesn’t make sense to me. Generally I find that I can fall in with one group or another when it comes to opinions on things but occasionally I find a thing so perfectly suited to my sensibilities that I can’t understand how anyone could hate it, and then that’s the thing that is universally hated by everyone and I have no idea why.
I love Chappie. I just want to state this upfront so we can get this out of the way and proceed with no illusions. I don’t love it ironically. I don’t love it apologetically. It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s not something I might just watch if it’s on TV and there’s nothing better on. I don’t love it in spite of all its flaws. I love Chappie and while I missed out on a lot of popular films last year, it would take some pretty captivating stories to knock this movie out of my top ten or at least top fifteen of the year. Begin furiously typing your insults now, dear readers. Fill the comments with your hate. I care not, I will still love Chappie.
Now I said I don’t understand why everyone but me despises this movie, but let me walk that back for a minute because that’s not quite true. Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was the big surprise of 2009, it got nominated for an Academy Award (that it had absolutely no chance of winning) and ushered in legions of fans who waited impatiently as Blomkamp cryptically teased his follow-up: Elysium. People HATED Elysium, I have various theories on why they hated it that I’ll save for my column on that particular film but the big one is that Blomkamp’s first and second films had a lot of superficial similarities; most notably a theme of oppression, a tendency toward brief scenes of ultra-violence, and dirty trash-strewn landscapes. When Chappie’s first trailer hit the internet and the visual similarities to District 9 and Elysium were noted, everyone automatically dismissed the film as a wash and started calling Blomkamp a one-trick pony. To add insult to injury, Chappie is really derivative of both RoboCop and Short Circuit and the extremely polarizing South African rap duo Die Antwoord star in the film as well as provide much of the soundtrack.
That Chappie bombed with critics and viewers alike was already a foregone conclusion and it became the internet’s punching bag for several weeks. So hated was Chappie that one of the people involved with The Lazarus Effect (the boring stupid horror nonentity of 2015) outright mocked it in a twitter post reminding folks that their movie was playing too and it featured no Die Antwoord. When the makers of bullshit like The Lazarus Effect are throwing shade at your movie, then it’s official that you’re sunk. So I kind of understand, on an intellectual level, why this movie would turn people off in much the way that I understand that Cilantro tastes like soap to some people. But to me Cilantro is delicious and I don’t care how your weird taste buds process it because I think it’s amazing.
In many ways Chappie is a return to District 9 territory for Neill Blomkamp. We’re back in Johannesburg, we’re dealing with a small scale story, the faux-documentary style is back (very briefly in the film’s opening scene) and you would be forgiven for thinking he’s spinning his tires. There’s a lot of information to impart and we don’t have a whole lot of time since there’s a great deal of story to cover after we know the situation. The first act is so rushed that it comes across as rather comical and clunky (Dev Patel’s character represents inventing true artificial intelligence by typing furiously and going “come on!” as he chugs Red Bulls and looks sternly at a computer screen) but once we establish all the characters and get Chappie alive and out there the pace slows down and lets these characters and their distinct personalities interact.
The plot is basically that bit in Short Circuit 2 where Johnny 5 gets lured into joining a street gang only it goes on to fill up the whole movie and it takes place in the same universe as Robocop. That is basically 99.99998% of the complaints about this movie, and I get that anything looks bad when held up to Robocop, but people seem a lot more angry about the Short Circuit similarities. Look I get it, I enjoy Short Circuit as much as the next guy who saw it a million times as a kid but it’s not a very good movie and taking its framework and applying it to something other than a goofy 80s romantic comedy is actually pretty ingenious, the concept is interesting and is one of my favorite storytelling tactics: take familiar elements and mixing them up in a way that feels new.
So we’ve got a pretty simple narrative with a lot of moving parts. Chappie’s creator Deon wants to help Chappie learn and grow because he is a true artificial consciousness capable of amazing things, Yo-Landi sees him as essentially a child and feels a strong maternal bond with the robot, Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore sees the robot as an unholy abomination and wishes to destroy him using his fancy military ED-209 look-alike the MOOSE as a back-door to a defense contract to mass-produce more, Ninja wants to use Chappie to help him commit a heist to get the absurd amount of money he owes to a local crime-lord for a botched job at the beginning of the film, and Chappie wants to find a way to transfer his consciousness into another body because the damaged chassis that Deon implanted his mind into has a dying battery that can’t be removed due to taking an RPG to the chest earlier in the movie.
I’ve heard many critics, even the ones who seemed to somewhat guiltily enjoy the movie complain that it’s all over the place; that is kind of true but only under a specific context. It would seem that a big source of frustration for a lot of viewers was in figuring out what Chappie is trying to say. Is it an allegory on society, is it about how we define life, is it a coming of age story, what does it all mean? There are various thematic elements at play here but for the most part this movie is about exactly what it’s about. A lack of subtext can be its own problem but I appreciate a story every now and then that just lets itself be taken at face value. It’s about following a group of interesting and dynamic characters as they interact and that is as deep as it really needs to be. If you wanted a heady dissection of artificial intelligence and what is or isn’t real last year then Ex Machina was there for you, this isn’t that movie and it doesn’t try to be. Nor does it try to be a big epic action movie (complaint number 2 is that the scope and ultimate climax of the story are all pretty small-scale), it’s more of a comedy-drama with a couple good action sequences thrown in and the fact that it doesn’t so easily fall into one niche or genre is something I found refreshing about it. I like it when a story doesn’t try and fit into a pre-made category.
Ninja and Yo-Landi are going to be a sticking point with a lot of people. If you just can’t stand those two then this movie isn’t going to sway you toward them, they’re effectively playing themselves just as gun-toting criminals rather than white trash rappers. I’ve seen complaints about their acting but they do fine, their accents make their speech come off as stilted but it’s how they talk in real life as well. Yo-Landi brings a lot of heart to her character as Chappie’s surrogate mother and maybe the only character who seems to purely have his own interests in mind. I would say she’s the secret emotional core of the film and I found I liked the character a lot. Ninja is a decent actor but Yo-Landi Visser does not get the credit she deserves here.
Ninja is almost a villain. His interests in Chappie are in having some muscle to help him pull off his big heist; he’s abusive to the robot as it develops mentally making for a harsh “father-son” dynamic that likely echoes Ninja’s own upbringing. This becomes even more obvious when Ninja decides to be kinder to the robot, taking him under his wing and teaching him how to be tough in the most macho way possible whilst manipulating him to do what he wants. Ninja is an interesting character, both sympathetic and menacing, pathetic and dangerous. I’m somewhat reminded of Michael Moriarty’s character from Q: The Winged Serpent, a similarly despicable human who you strangely came to root for as the film progressed.
Deon’s a bit of a weak link. Dev Patel is a good actor but the character is twitchy and shallow and mostly just seems to show up to explain things. He’s technically the main human character of the movie but he really just shows up as a catalyst each time the story enters another chapter. If this was an 80s movie he would have been killed at the end of the first act and serve as a first traumatic event for his creation, instead he just kind of hangs around until his integral part in the final act (which is admittedly quite good.) I just feel something else could have been done with the character though I’m not entirely sure what.
Hugh Jackman is golden as Vincent Moore. He’s a swinging dick with a mullet who walks around an office wearing khaki shorts and a gun in a holster. In one of the best scenes involving the man he threatens Deon by pressing a gun to his head in front of the entire office then plays it off as a joke, telling everyone that it obviously isn’t loaded and they all need to lighten up before inviting Deon to come to church with him. This one little bit tells us everything we need to know about the character and who he is. He’s my favorite slimy industrial type this side of Miguel Ferrer’s character from the original Robocop. Some have given this movie flak for not having a stronger villain in Vincent Moore but I’d argue it’s really not that sort of movie. There doesn’t need to be a “Boss” character; the MOOSE is a sufficient third-act challenge for the robot. Vincent Moore and the crime lord Hippo aren’t there to be overcome by Chappie, his goal shouldn’t be to kill either of these men or to even defeat them. Chappie’s antagonist is his own mortality and the mortality of those he loves. Moore is an obstacle in Chappie’s way to finding a way to save his own life and his confrontation with the man (SPOILERS UNTIL THE END OF THIS PARAGRAPH) is as perfect as I could imagine. He doesn’t have some big explosive-laden battle with Moore on a dock full of shipping containers or a giant radio tower, he beats the striped fuck out of him in a plain office building, leaves him within an inch of his life, and then declares that he forgives him. The inhuman machine just showed mercy upon and forgave the macho professed-Christian who just killed his mother and threatened his creator. Of all the things I don’t get about the hate for this movie it’s this moment because it is brilliant.
Chappie may be Sharlto Copley’s finest performance to date. He plays the character with a naivete and innocence befitting a child, some may find his voice and speech patterns annoying but there was something very genuine about the character that endeared him to me. Mostly I enjoy the way he never compromises his principles even when he’s lied to and tricked numerous times. Even when he does act out in violence he does so without becoming the ruthless killer that he could easily turn into. There are several moments where I though the movie was going to take a predictable turn with the character but it swiftly dodged down a different path just in time.
While many will dismiss Neill Blomkamp’s movies as all looking the same there is a unique visual tone to all three of his films if you look past the trash. District 9 has a rather sterile white palette, Elysium is a muddy/rusty brown, and Chappie features a lot of blues: blue skies, blue debris, the blue lights that serve as Chappie’s “eyes.” Chappie is the most colorful of the three films. Yo-Landi and Ninja’s hideout is the most visually arresting set and not surprisingly much of the film is set there amongst the pastels, graffiti, and strikingly colored walls and pillars. I would love to see Blomkamp make a proper post-apocalyptic movie because he is amazing at finding beauty in ruin.
Similarly consistent with the director’s pedigree is some amazing computer generated effects. Chappie never looks or feels like CG, nor do any of the other scouts or even the MOOSE. They look like physical things and continue to run circles around much more expensive films in the effects department. I’m a practical effects guy through and through but there are limits to what practical can achieve and filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp do make a strong case for computer graphics.
The concept of transferring consciousness not just from machine to machine but from human to machine is a fairly original concept and I like the way it was used in this film. Admittedly I dislike that a lot of this was employed in seemingly teasing a sequel that surely even Neill Blomkamp didn’t think would happen. I’m not quite sure what to make of that final shot of the movie but it doesn’t rob the rest of the film of its enjoyment for me.
Revisiting this movie I thought I might like it less now that the newness of it had faded but I found that once you get past those first twenty minutes it’s still a very solid movie; I think it might even be my favorite of Blomkamp’s three films. I watch it and see a very solid, very simple sci-fi action comedy. I don’t know why I’m the only one, maybe it’s because I’m the only one who didn’t see the birth of the next Ridley Scott or Christopher Nolan with District 9 but rather a reliable genre director who is capable of adding a drop of prestige to dumb action movies rather than adding a little cult pizazz to somber science fiction epics. Or maybe I’m crazy, I don’t know. I think history will be kinder to Chappie than the present was, this is a movie almost pre-made for a cult following and I think removed of the public’s annoyance with Neill Blomkamp and his perceived failure as a filmmaker viewers will be able to look on it with less biased eyes and see the gem that it is.
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