Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) is, by his own admission, more of a "concept" filmmaker. Blomkamp is a filmmaker with big ideas who hasn't quite mastered the nuts and bolts of cinematic storytelling. Blomkamp's approach worked incredibly well with his first feature film, District 9, though this was as much because moviegoers weren't familiar with his style and it was unique enough and bold enough to capture the hearts and minds of sci-fi fans everywhere who were eagerly hoping for a fresh new voice in sci-fi cinema.
Then, Blomkamp gave us Elysium, another film with big and bold themes yet a film that, for the most part, exhibited much of the same style as District 9. Elysium was big and bold, but it didn't feel anywhere near as fresh nor as unique as its predecessor.
With Blomkamp having been announced as the director of an Alien reboot, his fans and moviegoers everywhere eagerly anticipated this third film from Blomkamp, Chappie, a film that had a trailer that couldn't help but have you mumbling to yourself "No. 5 Alive!"
Now then, here's what I want.
The next time Blomkamp is working on a film, I want him to lock himself in a conference room with a screenwriter. I want him to pour out his heart, mind, body, and soul in sharing the grand concepts that he envisions for his film.
Then, I want him to leave the room and let that screenwriter actually write the film.
That's what I want, because despite the fact that Chappie manages to entertain in some weird and quirky way, the simple truth is that this is a film that should have been a near masterpiece and is instead simply a pretty good film made better by Blomkamp's technical prowess and a cast that seems strangely in tune with where Blomkamp was trying to go with all of this.
Chappie works, but Chappie could have been and should have been a much better film.
I must confess that I found Chappie to be a bit of a traumatic film, mostly because of a story decision involving the evolution of Chappie and how he is shown to be growing up in a world where he is abused, neglected, and exploited. As I left the theater after the film's promo screening, I found myself jarringly troubled by the experiences of a young Chappie, yet the more I reflected on these scenes and felt them through and thought them through the more I realized that such a response was strong evidence of the effectiveness of Sharlto Copley's vocal and stop-motion performance and evidence that, despite my reservations with how these scenes were written, that the character of Chappie had truly come to life for me.
In other words, he was a "child" and I ached to see him hurt.
Blomkamp has set Chappie within a dystopian future only a couple years away. He returns to South Africa, something that many will fault, yet it is a world he knows and he paints it vividly. Johannesburg has become fairly close to a police state protected by a robotic security force created by Dev Patel's Deon, a rather brilliant scientist in the world of artificial intelligence whose robotic police droids are all the rage and have resulted in the Johannesburg crime rate plummeting. Not surprisingly, this has led to Deon's being the favored son of the company's CEO, played by a massively under-utilized Sigourney Weaver, while being resented by the similarly brilliant Vincent (Hugh Jackman), whose much bigger and much more powerful robots are deemed too expensive and unnecessary by area police forces. When a couple of low-level gangsters, played by real life South African rappers Ninja and Yolandi Visser of the band Die Antwoord, concoct a plan to kidnap Deon in an effort to force him to turn over control of a robot to them that will allow them pull of a major heist and pay off a major debt, the wheels are set in motion for the ultimate dream of Deon to come to life - the "birth," if you will, of Chappie, a more advanced robot gifted with actual consciousness.
Now then, if it sounds like I've given you the entire film I can assure you that I haven't. I have a feeling that your appreciation of Chappie is very much going to depend upon your own culture, your life experiences, and how you view both the scientific and the more mystical worlds. While he doesn't always deliver satisfying answers, in fact sometimes he delivers downright absurd ones, there's something fascinating about a Blomkamp film because he's not afraid to pose the really big questions even if he doesn't quite have the answers.
That is both magnificent and maddening.
Is Chappie as simple as it seems? A story that wrestles with artificial intelligence and humanity and where the two intertwine?
Or is there more?
Is Chappie, perhaps, an examination of what it means to be fully human? Does the film further expand upon Blomkamp's fondness for discussions around power, economic injustice, and apartheid?
Quite simply, you will have to decide for yourself what Chappie actually means, but it's difficult to sit through the film without wondering exactly what it all means.
There's a frequent edginess to the film, perhaps owing to the rumored havoc caused by Die Antwoord on the set, but it's a menacing edginess that only gets muted every time Hugh Jackman's godawful mullet, a character unto itself, comes onto the screen. While Chappie never quite amps up the action to the volume of District 9, it's still a chaotic world that Blomkamp has created and a world that feels more artificial than intelligent.
While it would be easy to mistake Sharlto Copley's inspired and frequently playful vocal work as a darker cousin to Short Circuit's #5, Chappie is darker, edgier, more inspired, and immensely more satisfying of a character. Whether he is innocently learning to mimic the Afrikaaner gangster slang or quietly reading a book, Copley's vocal work here is a film stealer and nothing short of brilliant even when the story itself lets him down. The scene, which I will not describe, that I found so jarring is so vividly and beautifully brought to life by Copley that even now it's lingering in my psyche'.
Unfortunately, Copley's live-action counterparts are a lot more hit-and-miss. I will admit that after Slumdog Millionaire, I rather expected that Patel would be a one-hit wonder. This was especially true after the godawful The Last Airbender, but with two major films opening this weekend (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel being the other) I have no hesitation in saying that I was wrong and that Patel is maturing into a mighty solid actor. Hugh Jackman, despite being saddled with a hideous haircut and a faux nerd costuming design, manages to impress as the bitter and vengeful Vincent. Sigourney Weaver, as noted, is far too wasted here in what amounts to a one-note role as a profit-minded CEO. The duo from Die Antwoord grew on me over the course of the film, though Yolandi Visser is easily the true find of the film and manages to give the film much of its purity and emotional resonance. Both Visser and Ninja speak in the expected urban slang of Johannesburg, though Visser infuses her gritty and crime-immersed character with a rather sweet, maternal streak that blossoms over the course of the film. While neither Ninja nor Visser are likely to be knocking on Oscar's door anytime soon, I wouldn't be surprised to see Visser pop up in future film projects.
While familiar, Chappie's lensing by Trent Opaloch is stark and gritty and, when needed, rather intimate. After a career of astounding original scores, kudos must be given to Hans Zimmer for one of his most original works yet with this synth masterpiece.
Chappie is an odd little film. It is neither as good as it could have been nor as bad as many will say it is. It's a flawed film with occasionally brilliant ideas and occasionally lapses that will leave you scratching your head wondering "WTF?" With pieces of the film obviously borrowed, and anyone with sci-fi familiarity will recognize it, Chappie is a tremendous concept of a film desperately in need of a fleshed out, fully embodied script.
You may not enjoy it. You may hate it. It may drive you completely insane with its loss possibilities, but here I am long after having seen the film and its images, words, and ideas still linger in my brain and I remember and I smile and I paint.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic