I’ll bet you that Neil Blomkamp seriously regrets just how excellent a film he created with District 9. That being his first big feature, he’s been funded twice since then for high-concept SF movies — and the critics aren’t happy.
I get it. Really. But I think it’s a little unfair, especially where this film is concerned.
Chappie is a film that hangs on a fairly simple idea, explored plenty of times before in SF cinema. We’re presented with a violent near-future Johannesburg which is protected from collapsing into criminal anarchy by a set of police robots — vaguely humanoid things with bunny-ears stolen (and acknowledged!) from the famous Appleseed manga of Masamune Shirow. (Nice touch.)
The original developer of these robots is working hard on software to create true AI — actual sentience. He acquires a ‘bot which is badly banged up and destined for the scrapheap, and surreptitiously slips his new programme into it. Bingo! Unfortunately, at about that point his path crosses with that of some desperate gangster types played mostly by South African rap band Die Antwoord. The gangsters try to turn newly-sentient Chappie to evil ends.
Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman is a desperate engineer/programmer/ex military guy at the same company which is responsible for the policebots. Jackman wants his own police weapons platform to hit the big-time, but the success of the policebots (“scouts”) is making his big, over-powered and over-armed thing look like an expensive monstrosity.
The film moves along at a reasonable pace. The robot itself (the eponymous “Chappie”, named by the terrifyingly-haired Yo-Landi of Die Antwoord) is a mo-cap performance from the inevitable Sharlto Copley, and between Copley’s antics and the very strong CGI team, it’s quite easy to accept Chappie as an independent character.
There’s really nothing much wrong with the story itself. There are a few places where you have to hold your breath and suspend your disbelief (downloading an entire human mind into a robot in a couple of minutes? Human consciousness adapting to a new robotic form in even less time than that?) but on the whole, it unfolds in the expected manner, and it’s good fun to watch.
There are issues, definitely. Hugh Jackman’s character is meant to be Australian. We know that because Jackman channels his inner Mel Gibson, chewing at the scenery and delivering lines like “Careful! He’s smart as a dunny rat!” (which must have puzzled the living shit out of cinema audiences worldwide… I mean, even here in Australia who the hell knows about dunny rats any more?).
The characters played by Die Antwoord are equally cartoonish, from their (yawn) gangsta hairstyles through their tattoos and guns and all the bling and swaggering stupidity cinema and television have taught us to expect from violent gangsta types. Yo-Landi in particular looks kind of lost as the “mother-figure” for the newly sentient robot, while “Ninja” (yeah, he goes by that name in real life as well as onscreen, apparently. Silly bastard.) is hardly any closer to the mark as he schemes to get around the basic decency programmed into Chappie by his maker. Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver as CEO of the firm which manufactures all these bots is largely wasted, given a few screen minutes in which to look vaguely confused and concerned as robotic sentience breaks out and
Mel — sorry, Hugh — tosses incomprehensible antipodean one-liners around the place.
But is it a terrible film?
By no means. First: it’s fun. Watching Chappie come to life and take up a life of crime (stealing cars under the impression that he’s “returning” them to his “Daddy”, Ninja) is pretty entertaining. And while the film doesn’t get as close to its themes (of identity and mortality) as District 9 managed, that would be simply because Blomkamp is trying to deliver an action movie, overall. The thoughtful stuff is there — but there’s not enough time and not enough screen space to really get into it, so he gives it enough to let you know there’s more than just explosions to this film, then moves on.
That’s probably the film’s worst failing, right there: the attempted integration of these powerful and complex ideas into the framework of a smashy, crashy action flick. But you know what? I don’t really care.
First: if Blomkamp had tried to take the ideas of identity, mortality, and the responsibility of a human creator to his genuinely sentient mechanical creations and make a movie that really explored those ideas in the depth they deserve, nobody would watch it. Secondly: other directors have gone down this path before in far less interesting or effective fashion, and we haven’t kicked the shit out of them for it. Anybody remember the 80s flick Short CIrcuit? Horribly popular in its time. And what about 2001: A Space Odyssey? Visually spectacular, but even Kubrick couldn’t really do more than repeat the old Frankenstein tropes with Hal 9000.
Is Chappie a great movie? Well, no. The cartoony performances — particularly that from
Hugh Gibson, Mel Jackman, dammit, Martin Riggs although he gets some slack for the ‘struth, ya flamin’ drongo!’ lines somebody gave him — are silly enough to provoke giggles where they’re not wanted. And in attempting to straddle the two realms of action cinema and thinky SF, Blomkamp has produced a somewhat lame hybrid… but it’s not a terrible film. On the balance, it’s a buttload better in every aspect than most of the big SF productions they throw at the screen these days. If this was a film from a new director, or a tried-and-true stalwart of the action film genre, we’d be hailing it as a brave but flawed effort with much to recommend it.
Unfortunately, Blomkamp made the mistake of starting his career with District 9.
The verdict? Watch it with a few friends, a couple bowls of popcorn and at least two gin-and-tonics.