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chappie artwork by mister g

Chappie

chappie artwork by mister g

Director: Neill Blomkamp / Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell / Editing: Julian Clarke & Mark Goldblatt / DP: Trent Opaloch / Music: Hans Zimmer

Cast: Sharlto Copley / Dev Patel / Ninja / Yo-Landi Visser / Jose Pablo Cantillo / Hugh Jackman / Sigourney Weaver / Brandon Auret   

Year: 2015

 

This Isn’t the Droid You’re Looking For

 


N
eill Blomkamp had already made a name for himself, as an accomplished F/X artist, when he landed his breakthrough gig: directing a trilogy of shorts to promote the Halo 3 video-game. So adept was his mastery of a difficult brief, that he found himself in-line to direct the first in a projected series of feature-length movies set in the wider Halo universe. At the time, the plan called for the films to be produced by Peter Jackson, with F/X to be handled by his Weta Workshop, back in New Zealand…

When this fell-through, Jackson instead opted to produce one of Blomkamp’s own ideas: District 9 (2009). Although resident in Canada, Blomkamp had grown-up in Johannesburg, South Africa and would set the film there. He presents a striking, singular image: a city under the shadow of a massive alien craft, that arrived un-expectedly and did nothing in the eight years since. Inside, it’s revealed to be carrying a skeleton crew of inscrutable alien beings, apparently marooned by the ‘actual’ crew, who alone possessed the ability to pilot the ship. They’re given sanctuary in a new ‘township’ (‘District 9’) within the city, that soon becomes a hotbed of illicit-trading, with their exotic weapons & technologies smuggled-out to the highest bidder, in exchange for tins of cat-food: the only food the ‘Prawns’ will eat. District 9 becomes the new norm; a new Apartheid.

GlassesThe film was a deserved success. It made a star out of its lead, Sharlto Copley (a childhood friend of Blomkamp’s) and reintroduced a gritty aesthetic to Sci-Fi, with its lived-in design, unexpected locations & heavily-accented, unfamiliar cast. Throw-in an intelligent script by Blomkamp’s wife (screenwriter Terri Tatchell) and, for a brief moment, it looked as though Science-Fiction had a new champion.

His next film – Elysium (2013) – starred Matt Damon & Jodie Foster, in an undercooked tale about the elite of Mankind living on a classic, spinning-wheel space-station in orbit, while the teeming masses on the Earth below, suffer from pandemics & anarchy caused by Global Warming, etc etc… Blomkamp himself, has gone on-record as saying that ‘I almost want to go back and do it correctly… But the script just wasn’t there; the story wasn’t fully there.’ 

Having only vague memories of the film, I can only agree. Think of it as Blomkamp’s ‘difficult second album’.

Which brings us to Chappie: Blomkamp’s ‘difficult third album’… 

GlassesStemming from a 2004 short (Tetra Vaal), the film’s basic premise is disappointingly familiar. A tech-geek (albeit one with an appreciation of the Humanities), succeeds in creating a functional Artificial Intelligence program (‘AI’) that he then uploads into a disused police robot (the design & deployment of which, happens to be his day job). Instead of the maker teaching this robot to think & ‘feel’ like a human, in a controlled, measured fashion, it’s abducted by a gang of small-time drug dealers, with the intention of using its invulnerability to assist them in a ‘heist’. That turns out to be little more than a McGuffin, that gets us to an anti-climactic showdown with a bigger robot. Oh, and somewhere in there, the robot – by now, christened ‘Chappie’ – works-out how to transfer human consciousness to a robot, using a stack of networked Playstation 4 consoles, which proves handy for his soon-to-be-deceased human maker (the most blatant Sony product-placement, in this Sony production). 

Outlining a plot this early-on, isn’t something I’d usually do, but I wanted to make an exception for this bone-headed car-crash of a film, because there’s so much more I want to talk about than mere plot… Besides, if Blomkamp’s willing to disown those projects that disappoint in their execution, I expect there’ll come a day when he repeats the trick on this execrable piffle (more on this prospect, later).

First, let’s consider tone. Chappie is as bleak in its outlook as Blomkamp’s first two films, which wouldn’t be a problem, had the writers not injected ‘comedy’ into proceedings. It just has no place in such a nihilistic film and smacks of improvisation for its own sake. Then, there’s casting. 

GlassesThe film represents a very WHITE slice-of-life from The Rainbow Nation, with just two blink-and-you-miss-them speaking-roles for non-Whites! That leaves the entire film, played by ‘gold-toothed & tattoo’d’ Afrikaner gangsters, in a crass inversion of both expectation and the likely reality. So why has Blomkamp taken this path? Is he commenting on the futility of the White South African’s cause, by implying that membership (and creation) of such a gang culture represents their inevitable end? So obvious is this implication, that I struggled to buy-into the film’s premise. Which is a shame, as when the world-building is so obsessed with details, why use a ‘White-Washed’ cast? District 9 showed an integrated, multi-racial Jo’burg that, when compared to Chappie, offered an almost utopian vision of the future…

Worse of all however, is Blomkamp’s casting for the gang. He’s a fan of South African hardcore rap group Die Antwoord (‘The Answer’); a collective formed in 2008 by rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, who’s musical style promotes the idea of ‘Zef’: a local counter-cultural movement with irreverent, anarchic themes, lyrics & attitude; both members were cast along with Juan Pablo Cantillo as Yankie, the token American. Critics such as Ross Truscott & Maria Brock have written: the ‘rise of Zef culture’ to be an expression of ‘Afrikaner self-parody’ growing out of a sense of ‘national melancholia’ in post-Apartheid South Africa. In other words, the common vulgarity expressed – and promoted – by Zef, is a reaction to the White’s newfound irrelevance to the country. If I sound frustrated, it’s because Blomkamp appears engaged with the dilution of Afrikaner culture and identity, yet addresses it in such a base, reductive manner that does neither the subject nor the film, any favours. He’s shown he can be better than this, so to regress in the assumptions of taste & intelligence he makes of his audience is almost insulting.

GlassesI digress. Watching Ninja & Visser go through the motions, is painful to watch at-times. Ninja is seldom seen without either a sawn-off shotgun or an AK-47, incongruously painted in high-vis yellow and his character, as-written, is incapable of any kind of meaningful interaction without violence, either implied or enacted. His (real) tattoos are an affront to the camera’s unforgiving lens and, along with his branded clothing, Ninja succeeds only in treating the film as a marketing exercise! As to Visser, she totters around in outré outfits and swears a lot, but otherwise demonstrates little purpose in being there, other than to act as a surrogate ‘mother’ for Chappie… With their garbled dialogue to further alienate the wider audience, I was left scratching my head at what these two were aiming for: parts in the next Mad Max?

I’m serious.

What on Earth was Blomkamp thinking of? More to the point, what did the Suits running Columbia Pictures think they were getting? Did any of them watch the dailies? This trio of numbskulls dominate the movie, getting more screen-time than anyone else but Chappie, yet they’re NOWHERE to be seen in any of the PR imagery! It’s as though the Suits only got their first look when Blomkamp delivered his first cut, then realised – all too late – what would be needed, to salvage something they could sell

To be fair to Blomkamp, I can at least see what he was reaching for, visually: a post-punk, neon-saturated style rooted in the impermanence of gang-life as he perceived it to be (and as-filtered through Die Antwoord’s sensibility). Ninja & Visser led the set-decorators, in transforming a niche within a gutted power-station, to create a den in which they could ‘nurture’ Chappie. This included creating a shrine to Ninja’s day-glo AK-47, amidst a mash-up between Mad Max, Banksy, Judge Dredd & the Post-Nuclear ‘Neo-Tokyo’ of Akira… No relevant cultural touchstone was left unturned in the making of Chappie, which left little room to think of something new!

GlassesBlomkamp’s at his best, when conceiving visual themes or using F/X to act as a safety-net for unspoken narrative; in that, he’s firmly in the tradition of Ridley Scott or Tim Burton, to name just two. But after this, I no longer trust his judgement as a screenwriter. There was something pure & distilled about District 9 that worked. A modest budget & expectations gave him a creative freedom that subsequent increases have smothered. It’s as if Blomkamp took the praise rightfully showered on him after District 9 and believed the hype, thinking his tastes & judgement were beyond reproach…

If the lead actors (in screen-time) were ignored by PR, let’s at least talk about who IS on the poster. Stand-out for me, is Deon (Dev Patel) as the engineer behind not only Chappie’s design, but creator of what is sold as the World’s First Autonomous AI system… While I don’t believe any of it (Deon’s too young to have achieved ALL that Blomkamp would have us believe), I DO admire the open-hearted humanity Patel brings to a movie that’s otherwise sorely lacking.   

Deon might be wittering-on about his AI having the insight to decide whether it ‘liked’ art, but someone in-charge would surely be thinking this: ‘Can this robot shoot bad guys, without someone telling it to?’ To which the answer is a qualified ‘Yes’, followed by: ‘But who gets to decide? One man’s Terrorist is another man’s Freedom Fighter, after all.’ In this, Deon has failed morally, the moment he took a shilling from The Man who, in this case, is Michelle Bradley. You know. Michelle Bradley? That boss of a ‘publicly-listed arms corporation’…

GlassesThe part of Bradley is written in desultory fashion for none-other than Sigourney Weaver, that doyen of Sci-Fi, who looked like she was sleepwalking through her lines (thereby applying as much effort in their delivery as the writers put into their creation).

Then there’s Hugh Jackman as Vincent Moore; a rival engineer, who’s own project (‘Moose’) has been sidelined in favour of Deon’s own police ‘Scouts’, of which Chappie is one. An ex-soldier-turned-robotics-engineer-turned-philanthropist (I made one of those up), Moore has created a VTOL-equipped, heavy-duty weapons platform that requires a distant human operator in order to function; the joke being that, at least in its looks, Blomkamp has redesigned the ‘ED-209’ robot from RoboCop (more on this, later…). At least Jackman puts Moore’s flakiness up-front, by wearing a sidearm to the office… And no-one complains or comments on it? Perhaps this is another subtle comment by Blomkamp on the pervasiveness of guns in the film’s version of society (and, by extension, South Africa’s)? Maybe, he’s commenting that Zef thinking is all-pervasive? That characters such as Moore and Ninja are really two sides of the same coin? I doubt that, but I’m willing to be persuaded… In any event, Jackman carries himself with a careworn schlubbiness as if he took the film on, solely to pay the mortgage for a few months… Along with Weaver, he gets precious few lines, yet manages to grace the posters; welcome to the movie business!

Perhaps the one actor who looked like he was enjoying the few scraps given, was Brandon Auret as Hippo, a local kingpin and proud owner of a gold-plated AK. Hippo’s the conclusion; the inevitable end-point at the heart of Zef’s mentality, yet despite his fearsome look & implied reputation as a killer, the stringy-Ninja still manages to kill him (off-screen and with a shovel!). Utter bobbins

GlassesLast, I want to look at Chappie’s themes & its numerous influences.

At its heart, is an exploration of what it means to be human and why a non-human entity given a semblance of consciousness, might want to become one of us. It’s an idea as old as the Greek & Roman myths, but brought into sharp-focus with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. You all know the story by now: how the ambitious Dr. Frankenstein ‘creates life’ from a carefully assembled jumble of body-parts sewn-into the semblance of a man, only for the ‘monster’ he creates, to suffer an existential crisis as memories resurface in ‘his’ donated brain. In-turn, that leads him to question his purpose and his reason for existing in the first place. Far from being a straight ‘horror story’ as widely believed, Shelley’s tale reads more like a modern tragedy.

The idea has been a staple of cinema from its early days. From Dr. Rotwang’s female robot in Metropolis (1927), to Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) film-makers have been reinterpreting Shelley’s modern myth. A more recent example is Spielberg’s AI (2001); itself, a loose reinterpretation of Pinocchio. With Chappie, Blomkamp is tapping that same wellspring, to create a scenario that sees an artificial construct given ‘life’ (in this case, a conscious AI) by a maker driven by a passionate need to… Err 

Well, we’re never actually told Deon’s motivation; it seems he just spent the best years of his young life on this thing for the sheer hell of it…

As-per the specific story trope, that precious creation is then stolen / abducted / lost, then forced to adapt to the altered demands of their new circumstances. In AI, the robot boy David is abandoned in the forest by an emotionally unstable mother and left to fend for himself. In Chappie, Blomkamp follows Pinocchio’s lead and has the robot inducted into Ninja’s gang, where he’s induced to kill for them (or make people go ‘Sleepy-Bye-Bye’ as Ninja tells it). 

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions…

GlassesIn AI, Spielberg’s working from a mature, sophisticated script developed by his friend, Stanley Kubrick (AI being, along with a biopic of Napoleon, one of Kubrick’s treasures). It gives space for the big, deeper ideas to be expanded & considered. During their scant two weeks of writing (during a production lull on Elysium, apparently), neither Blomkamp nor Tatchell delivered a profound statement. The one moment in the film, that approaches anything like profundity is when Chappie asks of Deon: ‘Why did you make me so I would die?’ His irreplaceable battery’s about to give-out and Chappie’s staring mortality in the face, yet Deon simply ducks the question! At least when Dr. Tyrell fails to give hope to Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982), he pays with his life…

The writers are undoubtedly aware of what might be possible within their medium, but chose instead, to re-write RoboCop (may I remind you, that I’ve more to say on this, later?). It’s a perverse decision, akin to Paul Thomas Anderson remaking Weird Science (1985) in-pursuit of an allegory on the true nature of feminism…

Around the time of Chappie’s production, Alex Garland wrote & directed Ex Machina (2014), which used a similar theme (i.e. the perfection of AI within a robot, that then yearns to experience The Real World at First-Hand), but was executed with crystalline precision. Like AI before it, Ex Machina was written with intelligence and a degree of insightful profundity, in stark contrast to Chappie, which is all the more surprising when you consider that both men have a track-record of writing – and delivering – ‘serious’ Sci-Fi. Yet where Garland continues to surprise & delight, Blomkamp seems to be going backwards from District 9, becoming more vulgarised & banal with every subsequent film. Still, at least they have one common consolation: both men worked on cancelled scripts for a Halo movie… 

GlassesThe film had but two highlights for me. First, is Blomkamp’s unerring eye for detail design. In collaboration with Weta, he arrived at a final design for Chappie that resembled a gangly C-3PO, insomuch as it’s a biped with two arms. Whereas ‘3PO used an immobile humanoid face and relied on actor Anthony Daniels to imbue his performance with exaggerated gestures to suggest personality, Chappie’s design settles for a pair of antennae that look like rabbit ears, that he twitches (one of them helpfully coloured orange to aid identification among a legion of otherwise identical clones). At one point, Chappie also acquires an orange arm, playing homage to ‘3PO’s latest incarnation (first seen in graphic novels, then in The Force Awakens). He also has an animated dot-matrix display and a couple of mobile ‘facial rods’ reminiscent of Johnny 5’s ‘eyebrows’ from Short Circuit (1986). For all that, however, Chappie’s design isn’t particularly iconic or memorable. We’ll struggle to remember it in years-to-come and, perhaps, that was the point: he / it WAS designed as an appliance, after all…

Key to this, is my second highlight: Sharlto Copley’s motion-captured performance as Chappie. While I still find his thick Jo’burg accent impenetrable at-times, there’s no doubting his skill at imbuing the eventual CGI-realised character with quirky, childlike mannerisms. As mentioned at the outset, I’m no fan of the script’s comedic touches, but there’s little doubt that Copley’s putting-in a full shift here: ‘tis pity it wasn’t deployed on a worthier project. 

GlassesIt’s Copley and the film’s look, then, that are Chappie’s saving graces: everything else is beyond redemption. The movie’s tone-deaf, brain-dead and an almost criminal squandering of both talent & resources. Hans Zimmer scored this movie: could you even tell? Could he?

The real tragedy here, is that Neill Blomkamp has already demonstrated he’s capable of so much more: yet if he keeps making tosh like this, he’s going to squander his goodwill & talent and end-up as the M. Night Shyamalan of his generation… 

It’s ironic, then, that at the time of this writing, IMDB lists his next project as a reboot of, you guessed it: RoboCop. After all, what is Chappie, but Blomkamp’s audition for the film he wanted to make all along?

Don’t let this Philistine ruin your creativity!

Chappie  Triple Word / Score: VULGAR / FORGETTABLE / CLAPTRAP / FOUR

3 Comments
  • Avatar
    Andrew marshman
    Reply November 18, 2018 at 18:38

    Mr. G, what a stonking review! I like reading your reviews of bad films, nothing escapes your scrutiny. Maybe we should force you to watch all Sam Worthington films on repeat, forever! – think of all those lovely reviews.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be so cruel since you have just saved me 1.5 hrs of my life. I don’t need to watch this now.

    This comment was sponsored by PlayStation 4 “This is 4 the Players”.

  • Avatar
    Adrian Robinson
    Reply February 23, 2019 at 19:27

    I have a different approach to this film in which the strengths you put forward here are its weaknesses and Visa versa. I think this film was made by its low-rent elements and utterly destroyed by Weaver and Hackson. It would have been an incredible B movie had it not dipped its toes in the awful Hollywoid pool. Robocop remake? Hello no. Bad move

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