Friday, March 6, 2015

Chappie: Too many nuts, not enough bolts

Chappie (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, gore and constant profanity

By Derrick Bang

The best part about Chappie is the title character: not the robot per se, but the marvelous motion-control “performance” given by Sharlto Copley, which was built into a CGI character by the film’s video effects wizards.

Once Chappie falls in with rather evil companions, his "maker" Deon (Dev Patel) tries to
share some important moral imperatives ... such as Thou Shalt Not Kill. But while this
suddenly sentient robot understands the notion of conscience, his "monkey see, monkey do"
tendencies often yield less than ideal results.
We never see Copley on screen, of course, and there’s certainly no way that he could be concealed within this robot’s streamlined mechanical form ... but the actor grants this character a personality, awareness and sense of presence that evoke the similarly brilliant manner in which Andy Serkis brought Gollum to life, in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.

I only wish that director Neill Blomkamp’s film were the equal of its star.

The South African-born Blomkamp burst on the cinematic scene with 2009’s stunning District 9, a thoughtful sci-fi parable that explored racism, class divides and political skullduggery, while simultaneously building to a rip-roaring climax: a neat trick in all respects.

But Blomkamp has recycled many of the same story elements in subsequent projects, to diminishing returns. Its much bigger budget notwithstanding, 2013’s Elysium played the same narrative card: the violent efforts of an oppressed underclass to rebel against a harsh and long-established social order, with the catalyst being a lone individual who undergoes a spiritual and even physical transformation.

And here we are at Chappie, Blomkamp’s third sci-fi epic, and — as in District 9 — our central character once again is an innocent forced to adapt to horrific circumstances, while unwittingly becoming the face of social upheaval.

This time, though, Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell have compounded the sense of déjà vu by borrowing heavily from previous cinema sci-fi. The result too frequently feels like a clumsy blend of Robocop (the 1987 original) and Australian director George Miller’s savage, post-apocalyptic Mad Max series, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Along with elements that have become Blomkamp clichés after only three films, most particularly the testosterone-enraged, alpha-male villain who comes after our hero with bigger, badder hardware: David James’ Koobus, in District 9; Copley’s Kruger, in Elysium; and now Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, in Chappie. They’re all the same character: unhinged psychopathic thugs. Been there, grimaced at that.

But even that isn’t this new film’s biggest problem. For some reason, Blomkamp and Tatchell have populated their story with sidebar characters who are shrieking grotesques: gibbering, saliva-spitting, ludicrously exaggerated lunatics who make Batman’s Joker look serene. Worse yet, these individuals are played by non-actors — another Blomkamp trademark — who’ve been encouraged to overact abysmally.

If we ultimately feel something for any of these supporting players, it has more to do with the narrative arcs — and the manner in which the always tragic Chappie is victimized by these events — and absolutely nothing to do with thespic persuasion.

The time is the near future, the setting Blomkamp’s beloved Johannesburg, which has escaped being wholly overrun by criminal thugs only through the recent intervention of a robotic peace-keeping force known as Scouts. The Johannesburg police love the Scouts, the production of which has been a boon for robotics manufacturer Tetra Vaal and its CEO, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), who couldn’t care less about this amazing technology, as long as the money keeps rolling in.

But Tetra Vaal engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel, persuasively impassioned) cares a great deal. He’s clearly disturbed by the pre-programmed, judge-jury-executioner behavior that characterizes Scouts in the field, and he has been staying up nights in an effort to perfect artificial intelligence: robotic awareness that would imbue a Scout with a conscience.

Meanwhile, as the primary genius behind the entire Scout program, Deon remains Bradley’s golden boy.

This infuriates Moore, a rival engineer whose scientific brilliance is undercut by galloping insecurity and the twisted militarism of a former soldier who drank far too many gallons of fascist Kool-Aid. Moore’s pet project is a much larger and far more powerful robot dubbed Moose, which takes its orders via a headset worn by a human controller.

(I should mention that Moose bears a striking resemblance to the hulking ED-209 in the aforementioned Robocop. Blomkamp, visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey, and props effects supervisor Joe Dunckley should have tried harder for something original.)

More than anything else, though, Vincent hates the very notion of robotic AI, believing that such work goes against God. Bradley is similarly disinterested, but only because she sees no reason to mess with the already successful Scout program.

Undeterred, Deon labors clandestinely and finally cracks the problem ... only to be kidnapped by drug-dealing punks Ninja, Yolandi and Yankie. Yolandi has decided that, as the head Scout scientist, Deon must know how to turn all the robots off, so that she and her friends can resume their criminal ways. That isn’t possible, but — fearing for his life — Deon offers the next best thing, and builds them a new Scout with his just-perfected AI chip.

And thus Chappie is “born,” named, and enters this violent world as the equivalent of a human infant, who subsequently “develops” via the highly questionable “nurture” coming from his larcenous companions. (1986’s Short Circuit, anyone?) Deon, oddly allowed to live, manages to inject a few moral imperatives, but this seems a losing battle.

The core of the story, then, follows Chappie’s chaotic emotional growth and transformation, from fearful innocent to (sadly) ill-taught street ruffian. We bleed for the poor robot, repeatedly abused and victimized; at the same time, the mimicry involved in Chappie’s “education” often is hilarious, particularly as he attempts to make sense of how Yolandi’s gruffly tender approach often conflicts with Ninja’s profane hostility.

Ninja and Yolandi are played by Watkin Tudor Jones and Anri du Toit, a popular South African rap-rave duo better known as (ahem) Ninja and Yolandi. They essentially reprise their belligerent stage presence here, with uneven results. Yolandi elicits fitful bursts of sympathy, but Ninja is simply off the rails. I guess we can call this violent parody, akin to the burlesques who populate Quentin Tarantino films, but that tone doesn’t work as well here.

Yankie is played by Jose Pablo Cantillo, an actual actor, and — no surprise — his scenes with Chappie are far more effective.

The building drama revolves around whether Chappie’s developing conscience will allow him to find a way toward redemption, if not some form of salvation. The resulting struggle is both delicate and vicious, and always fascinating: the part of Blomkamp’s film that works best, and works at all times.

Needless to say, Moore and his Moose eventually get involved in these proceedings, as does Hippo (Brandon Auret), Ninja and Yolandi’s even more insanely violent criminal boss. Bear in mind, as this story approaches its inevitably brutal final act, that Blomkamp delights in “wet” and graphic havoc.

That said, nothing in this film is more chillingly awful than when Moore comes at a restrained Chappie with a hand-held circular saw.

Blomkamp’s behind-the-scenes elements are first-rate, starting with production designer Jules Cook’s way-crazy sets: Ninja and Yolandi’s concrete, abandoned-warehouse hideout, with all its weird decorations; Hippo’s den, a former upper-class home, complete with pool (now filled with guns); a huge silo-like dwelling where Ninja barters for some explosives.

The quieter settings are equally intriguing, none better than Deon’s modest home, complete with adorable little robot assistants (which evoke memories of Sebastian’s small mechanical helpers, in 1982’s Blade Runner).

Although Hans Zimmer’s orchestral underscore brings dramatic and poignant emphasis to the on-screen action, it’s too frequently drowned out by screaming vocal tracks from Ninja and Yolandi, in their Die Antwoord mode. Which do nothing to enhance this film.

Some great ideas exist here, and Copley’s rendering of Chappie is a highlight throughout, but the execution is a mess: chaotic storytelling, bad acting and bewildering stabs at social commentary that Blomkamp’s frenzied directorial style cannot conceal.

Time to step back and think harder about how you want your second act to unfold, Neill, because otherwise your 15 minutes of fame are about up.


  1. Oh how I miss your ability to write a clever headline!

  2. Thank you; I must confess, I was rather pleased with this one.