Chappie Review

Posted: August 15, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

chappie_ver2Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In 2009, a little film called District 9 was released in August and left a big impact. This was an original IP made in a unique setting which had tremendous political undertones. It was a huge breath of fresh air which made enough waves to even nab an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It also really launched the career of director Neil Blomkamp, who previously had nothing but shorts under his belt. His follow-up, Elysium arrived to high expectations but was seen as something of a disappointment. Personally, I quite enjoyed Elysium, but it is certainly a flawed work and a step down from District 9. Still, while that film was at least expected with enthusiasm, the same cannot be said for Blomkamp’s third effort, Chappie. The film generally had look warm receptions from the trailers, its release was met with near immediate critical dismissal. I didn’t have enough interest in the film to justify a trip to the multiplex, but I’m still curious about Blomkamp so I decided to give it a shot at home.

The film is set in a near future where a robotic police force has proven highly effective in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. The engineer behind these robots is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), whose real passion is developing an artificial intelligence. However his boss (Sigourney Weaver) sees no practical end in such research. Thus, Deon steals one of the defective police robots and installs his new A.I. programming. This robot will come to be known as Chappie (Sharlto Copley). Things are complicated when Chappie is kidnapped by a group of gangsters who want to use the robot to perform a heist. However Chappie’s brain is very much like an infant’s. He is still learning about everything, and thus he finds himself torn by the influence of his creator and the gangsters who stole him.

The film’s backdrop of a robotic police force will certainly draw comparisons to the seminal sci-fi action film RoboCop, a comparison accentuated by another robot which looks suspiciously similar to the ED-209. Chappie takes the elements of RoboCop and sort of crosses them with every “pet robot” movie from Short Circuit to Terminator 2. These comparisons can be a little distracting, but the film I was reminded of most was Blomkamp’s own District 9. Both films open and close on very similar scenes and Blomkamp has maintained the same visual aesthetic from the get go. Additionally, the movement of Chappie himself is almost identical to that of the Prawns in District 9. It is a little disappointing to see how little Blomkamp has grown as a filmmaker since 2009, but I have to admit his style does still work in some ways. If nothing else, his visual and editing choices are unique to the conventional Hollywood’s blockbuster. It’s mostly pretty neat, though some of Blomkamp’s choices are a little less forgivable, in particular his clear love for rap group Die Antwoord. Not only as Blomkamp cast the duo as the gangsters (who are essentially playing gangsterized versions of themselves), he also has the characters wear their own merchandize, loaded the soundtrack with the group’s songs, and the score itself seems inspired by their work. It reeks of arrogance.

Chappie is essentially three different films; a pet robot story/light comedy, a violent action movie, and a philosophical science-fiction film. Of the three, it is the first storyline that works the best. There’s fun to be had watching Chappie learn from his gangster captors and Sharlto Copley’s voice work is quite good. However this aspect of the film is hurt by its other two sides. The seriousness and the violence of the action movie portion clash with the fish out of water comedy, and the addition of giant robots and stylized shootouts eliminate the lowkey feeling established in the learning scenes. Chappie doesn’t work as a pure action movie either. It may end on a pretty exciting climax, but there aren’t enough set-pieces for the film to work as an adrenaline rush. Finally, it is the philosophical aspects of the film that fail the hardest, mostly because they are crammed into the final ten minutes. Questions of consciousness and whether life can transcend physical bodies are interesting ones worthy of cinematic examination, but their included here so briefly they can’t be properly probed. These types of ideas also feel out of place in a movie that’s mostly been about a funny robot and some shooting.

All of these ideas might have come together under a better script, but the writing here is simply a mess, which doesn’t blend the elements well. Character motivation is also a big issue here. I don’t really understand Deon’s decision to steal a robot body for example. His boss may not be allowing him to pursue his work, but surely a highly intelligent scientist responsible for a massive achievement scientifically and financially (the robotic police force) could find the resources he needed somewhere else. The guy had the patience to work on this project every day for over a year, but then immediately throws it all away with reckless behaviour? I don’t buy it. There’s also a key character who acts like an irredeemable prick throughout the entire film, but is supposed to have some sort of redemption at the end which is completely manufactured. Worst of all though is Hugh Jackman’s character, who is simply one of the most ridiculous villains I’ve seen in a while. I like Jackman as much as the next guy, but he can’t save this character. The film also has a habit of forgetting about its key players and losing focus.

Chappie is a heavily, heavily flawed film and there’s really no way around that. It’s not a very well-thought out screenplay and the style shows a certain lack of growth from its director. It is refreshing to see a filmmaker really run wild with their own style in a Hollywood blockbuster and there are some solid things scattered throughout. It’s enough to keep the film from sinking, but I gotta say I hope Blomkamp can raise the bar with his next film.


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