director Neill Blomkamp
viewed: 03/08/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA
Parts Robocop (1987) and parts A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), filtered through a South African lens by director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp, Chappie is a frustratingly mixed bag of qualities and short-comings.
The biggest plus of the movie is its featuring South African rap stars Ninja and Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord, though more so Yolandi, the strangely-coiffed, oddly-voiced pixie-woman who is both gangster and mother to the robot boy, Chappie. Though Ninja’s own odd mullet, echoing early 1980’s Joe Strummer, and his lanky tattooed gangster persona is also something interesting. And Chappie himself, a CGi robot, acted by motion capture by Blomkamp’s standby Sharlto Copley, is also quite effective.
Either South Africa is the haven of mullets or at least that is how Blomkamp sees it because almost everybody here seems to hate bangs and sideburns, but likes to keep it long in the back (in case a party breaks out). Sorry, some of these observations are a little more off-the-cuff than others.
Really, the film’s problems are in the forced terseness of the story. Chappie is a robocop with a new artificial intelligence chip plugged in and then is meant to be a bit like a newborn baby or perhaps a primate in his intellect. Why he is not already programmed to understand English makes no sense (other than they want to do a scene where he doesn’t understand English) because he moves through learning curves in super-illogical ways. Dev Patel, who is Chappie’s creator, essentially tells him, “Don’t do crimes!” a mantra that Chappie adheres to while learning the gangster life from Yolandi and Ninja.
The improbability problem is rife throughout the film for narrative conveniences that ultimately were very off-putting. I was reminded of the power of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, whose emotional heart is keyed into believing in this robot boy suddenly achieving consciousness because Chappie strives for a similar fairy tale quality in a more rough-and-tumble SA tough guy world and just fails and fails hard.
And yet it’s likable. Now, several days out from having watched it, I’m still more annoyed by the niggling shortcomings of the story than charmed by the characters or the inventiveness. I guess it’s aging already rather poorly in my mind. I didn’t find it terrible at the time. The kids had been keen to see it and liked it okay. But I was definitely disappointed.
It’s probably apropos to compare it to Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) with the Johannesburg settings and Robocop dystopia. But so many things made it feel less visionary and more just dumb. One thought that also crossed my mind was that the big tank robots crafted by Hugh Jackman’s character should have proved more popular given the way that urban police forces in America have taken to over-arming themselves with more military grade technology than necessary. It actually felt like the wrong bell was rung when he gets shot down by the police association for suggesting ground to air missiles in contrast to the humanoid robo-cops that have already proven successful.
Science fiction is often as about the present as the future, but it was this sort of lack of vision and ingenuity that made it seem less and less sophisticated than it really strove to be.
It’s funny, this post has turned more negative than I had intended. But I guess that’s where my brain has been lingering since we saw it on Sunday. It was disappointing.
So now as excited as I might have been about Blomkamp’s coming Alien (1979) revitalization, I’m left to wonder if he’s really got the ability to make something truly worthwhile.
And another thing, in a movie set in South Africa, why were there no “people of color” in any significant roles? I’m not the kind to focus on these types of issues generally, but there was even an American Latino character in the main gang but not a native black African? Weird stuff.