Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley; Dev Patel; Hugh Jackman; Sigourney Weaver; Ninja; Yo-Landi Visser.
Plot: In the near future, crime is patrolled by a mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
Neill Blomkamp’s latest socially conscious low key sci-fi, Chappie (2015), felt like a film torn between two ideals. The first was that the film wanted to be an in-your-face adult shoot-em-up filled with explosions and other effects driven set pieces. The second was that it wanted to be a socially conscious piece that cast an eye on the threat of corporations and the weapons industry while highlighting poverty and the prejudices towards the poor that come with it. One could argue that this would be a great recipe for success in the contemporary Hollywood market, yet the film has bombed at the box office and left a lot of critics on the fence with regard to whether or not it’s any good, therefore making my reading of the picture torn because on one hand I can pick apart Chappie’s flaws, and on the other I really enjoyed it.
The film kicked off with an action sequence that was no more spectacular than the average blockbuster or action-comedy gun fight/chase scene and I had truthfully expected more. Sure, a Hans Zimmer score and a whole heap of blood, death, and helicopters, should have drawn me in but it was nothing special. The only comparison I can make is that the opening sequence felt like the pre-credit scene to an episode of CSI; setting the backstory of the key protagonists and antagonists in place so that the rest of the film (or TV show in CSI’s case) needn’t explain it to us. It felt contrived, as if Blomkamp was ticking the boxes he needed to in order to get funding for what was otherwise a well put together movie that used sci-fi tropes such as ‘what it is to be human’ in order to develop as a character driven piece, therefore taking until the second act of the movie to really grab my attention.
Mark Kermode, in his review for theguardian.com, described the character driven aspect of the film as “too cute for older viewers more interested in the head-bangingly orchestrated guns and ’splosions”. I think that this is a reductive statement because it assumes that ‘older viewers’ could only expect violence, ‘guns and ‘splosions’ when we all know that to not be the case. It also falls short of the mark in terms of explaining the complexities of the social commentary offered by said ‘cuteness’, as Chappie not only highlights the development of consciousness in its central character (which can be considered cute given its child-like tendencies, granted,) but it also at least tries to present layered secondary characters of whom it is difficult to not care for by the end of the film. One character in particular – Ninja (Ninja) – was developed as a means of highlighting the abnormality of his poverty-stricken existence and therefore offered a commentary on the role of Father in said situations due to his “papa” role to the developing sentient being of whom the movie is titled after. While his character, and the other “gangster” characters that are often the central focus of this picture were well presented, they could still have been developed further. More so, Dev Patel’s character Deon Wilson and Hugh Jackman’s character Vincent Moore, were absent of any kind of development throughout the picture and were painted as the ultimate good and evil with very little by the way of reason to care about them; a huge flaw in the movies’ script. In fact, Jackman’s character was so under-developed that he was painted as no more than a Rugby ball obsessed and God-fearing hot head, whose only real motivation was jealousy and greed. This was a real shame and really highlighted how disjointed the film felt. On the one hand there was a relatively well thought out character development for Chappie and the “gangsters”, but on the other there was no character development for the ‘corporation/weapons industry’ storyline’s characters, reinforcing how it felt like this element had been thrown in as a means of getting funding or appealing to a wider demographic. Even here, in the absence of a storyline element – character development – the story felt contrived as if developed to purposefully avoid such a thing in order to gain mass acceptance, which was obviously very far removed from Blomkamp’s first picture District 9.
So, if it’s central character driven story-arc was disappointing, why did I like it?
First and foremost, it was Chappie himself. The sentient being was lovable, there’s no other way to describe it. He was a child who developed into an adult on screen and was presented with such awesome special effects work that it was almost unnoticeable that he wasn’t a real life person being photographed. Sharlto Copley excelled in the role and has been been almost universally praised for his performance, making his portrayal of the character one of the more intriguing aspects of the film and undoubtedly one of the bigger selling points to anyone who is yet to see it.
Second of all, it was how great Johannesburg was as a location for the picture. Even today, in 2015, South Africa and the African continent as a whole, are exotic to the vast majority of worldwide audiences, and that’s why it worked as the backdrop for this film. Chappie, set in the “near future”, used the exotic feel of Johannesburg to present an image of a dystopian future not unlike that of another Blomkamp movie Elysium (2013). This use of an unfamiliar city helped to characterise the time period, juxtaposing the vast majority of gadgets and vehicles that have been seen as the norm in contemporary western society for some time.
And finally, the score and soundtrack to the movie were excellent. I remember thinking at particular points in the film that it very much felt like one of Chrisopher Nolan’s Batman movies, coming to discover why at the rolling of the credits: Hans Zimmer. The German composer left his indelible stamp on the picture and was used as an appropriate opposition to the extreme dance-rap sound of the likes of Die Antwoord’s “Happy So Sucky Fucky”.
In conclusion, Chappie was torn and in many respects less than impressive. Technically speaking, a lot more could have been done to improve the finished product and there’s no doubting that Chappie is Blomkamp’s worst picture. While this film may not stand up against the all-time great sci-fi character pieces like Robocop and Blade Runner, it will certainly be a much more enjoyable experience than the vast majority of Summer blockbusters and should therefore be considered a mild success critically, even if it hasn’t been a success at the box office. For Chappie, I rate this…