Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Chappie (2015)

Chappie (2015)

Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity

Chappie was a film that I hesitated to see on account of the poor reviews it received; it took the recommendation of a family friend who saw it to get me to change my mind. While I loved Neill Blomkamp's directorial debut District 9, his follow-up Elysium was, in hindsight, a sophomore slump, and seeing both the ads for this and the reception it was getting, I began to wonder if he was a one-trick pony who'd already used up all his ideas. Thus far, his filmography has consisted entirely of action/science fiction films set in a dystopian future inspired by the ghettoes of South Africa, with commentary on the institutions and social problems of the present day -- racism in District 9, income inequality in Elysium. and in Chappie... the tech industry? Artificial intelligence? Drones? Parenthood? I still can't really tell what it's trying to say. More and more, I'm convinced that Peter Jackson deserves a huge amount of the credit for making District 9 the classic science fiction film that it is, as without Jackson's guiding hand, Blomkamp has struggled to recapture lightning in a bottle.

Make no mistake, Chappie is not a return to form for Blomkamp. Its big ideas are more muddled than ever, trapped under the weight of a heavy-handed script, a poorly-written villain, and a final-act deus ex machina that only frustrated me. However, that's not to say that there isn't still plenty to like about it. Taken as a lighthearted sci-fi coming of age story, a modern-day remake of Short Circuit meets RoboCop, Chappie is an entertaining flick with a lot of energy, drive, and passion in it, its lead characters and high-quality action more than helping to smooth over its very glaring faults.

We come to Johannesburg, South Africa two years from now, where the arms corporation Tetravaal has equipped the police with a line of robotic officers called Scouts. Armored, immune to pain and emotion, and capable of superhuman feats, the Scouts have helped crush crime in the blighted city. The Scouts' creator, Deon Wilson, sees the autonomous robots as the first step to creating a working artificial intelligence, and after making a breakthrough, he fixes up a damaged, decommissioned Scout with the intention of testing his AI program. Unfortunately, he's kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi, a pair of two-bit thugs deep in debt to a powerful crime boss who want to use him to disable the Scouts, allowing them to pull of a heist and get the money they need to pay off their debt. However, when they find out about his AI research, they instead decide to use his intelligent robot, who they name Chappie, to pull off the heist. Ninja begins training him into a lethal robot gangster -- much to the chagrin of Deon and Yolandi, who see that the blank slate of the robot's AI is fundamentally childlike, and that he ought to be used as more than just a weapon. Meanwhile, Deon is being pursued by his rival at Tetravaal, Vincent Moore. Vincent, an ex-military man and devout Christian, views AI as an abomination, and is instead pushing his own project, the Moose, a bipedal walking tank that everybody except Vincent can see is loaded with way too much firepower to be useful for police work -- but which is controlled entirely by a human operator. He's out to discredit Deon's work with the Scouts, and when he finds out what Deon has done with Chappie, all bets are off.

This film shines the most when it's focusing on its title character and the people around him rather than the intrigues at Tetravaal. Dev Patel is decent as Deon, but mostly fades into the background as opposed to the two people playing Ninja and Yolandi, who are... Ninja and Yolandi. Okay, this is gonna require a bit of explanation. Die Antwoord is a South African rap group composed of Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja, and Anri du Toit, aka Yolandi Visser. They come from what's known in South Africa as "zef" culture, a white lower-class subculture filled with hip-hop flash and pimped-out cars. Here, they essentially play themselves, only as real gangsters rather than rappers, even though they're frequently seen wearing Die Antwoord merchandise and their songs make up a good chunk of the soundtrack. (Including one that contains a line by Yolandi that directly references Neill Blomkamp. It's weird like that.) And for non-actors, they're actually pretty good. Yolandi plays a mother figure of sorts for Chappie, introducing him to art and reading, while Ninja teaches him how to be a badass and struggles to crack through his reluctance to kill people, all while promising that he'll help Chappie get a new body after the heist (Chappie's damaged battery will only last five more days). They're both obviously a bit rough at times, even playing what are basically themselves, but they definitely have the charisma to bring their roles to life. The real show-stealer, of course, is Chappie himself, played by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley in motion capture. Copley perfectly captures the childlike wonder that Chappie has at the world around him, his fear when he gets lost or things otherwise don't go the way they should, and his rage when he feels that he's been betrayed or that his "parents" are being threatened.

The big weak point in the cast, however, is Vincent. Hugh Jackman is serviceable in the role, but he doesn't bring anything to elevate the character above the serious problems in how he's written. Vincent is horrendously one-note, a meathead who fears Chappie not for any logical (or even logically spelled-out) reason, but simply because his existence goes against Vincent's moral values. We never see or learn why he hates artificial intelligence outside of "because he's a big, dumb, Luddite brute", and unfortunately for a film that wants to say something about the subject, he pretty much takes over the story in the third act. What started out as an interesting, fairly intelligent film about the birth of a thinking machine, and the comparison of its development to the process of raising a child and teaching it right from wrong, gets totally derailed by a bad guy who makes all manner of utterly brainless decisions simply to prove his point about how the Scouts and AI in general are evil. Sigourney Weaver is also wasted in what amounts to, basically, a glorified cameo as the CEO of Tetravaal, there solely to give the movie sci-fi geek cred, her presence not even used for a gag like it was in Paul or The Cabin in the Woods. Topping it all off at the very end is a final plot twist that came out of nowhere, feeling like Blomkamp pulled it out of thin air (or someplace else). It raised huge questions and implications that are never explored; instead, it's merely used to give the film an esoteric happy ending in spite of everything that the main characters had just gone through.

Fortunately, this film is able to redeem its broken third act thanks to Blomkamp's proficiency behind the camera. While I'm not convinced he has the storytelling chops to be a true auteur, he's still an incredibly proficient director on a technical level. This movie is filled with great action scenes of cops, robots, and gangsters battling it out in Johannesburg, and it's never afraid to get shockingly graphic in its violence without becoming truly mean-spirited. He also imbues the film with a great deal more humor than his previous two outings, as befits a film that's fundamentally about the process of raising a robotic child. Ninja's attempts to twist Chappie's sense of right and wrong, for instance, telling him that the cars they're jacking were stolen from him and that stabbing someone as opposed to shooting them merely "puts them to sleep", was incredibly entertaining -- but of course, you know that the learning robot is eventually gonna figure out that Ninja's been lying to him, and the point where that finally happens hit a lot harder than anything having to do with Vincent's hare-brained scheme.

Score: 3 out of 5

It's not nearly as smart as it thinks it is or wants to be, but it avoids becoming a pseudo-intellectual slog by virtue of some great characters, action, and style. If you just wanna see a fun and breezy (if very R-rated) action film that's off the beaten path, give it a look.

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