Saturday, March 7, 2015

“Chappie” – Gansta’ robot?

A lot of different things went through my mind in the twenty-four hours or so after I watched Chappie, so if this review seems somewhat scattered or completely crazy, don’t say I didn’t warn you. If I don’t get them all out of my head, they’ll pop into my conscious thinking at random times like the middle of the night or during staff meetings, although it’s not like I really have to pay attention during staff meetings. But, since I like to sleep, let’s do this.

Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind with Chappie is that it was written (with Terri Tatchell) and directed by Neill Blomkamp. If you are not familiar with Blomkamp’s work, he is responsible for the fantastic District 9 (also co-written by Tatchell) and the not so fantastic Elysium (not co-written by Tatchell). A couple of interesting notes here – (1) Terri Tatchell is Blomkamp’s wife, (2) of the three films, Elysium is the only one not based on a Blomkamp short film, and (3) Tatchell appears to be a vital component to writing a good movie. And, yes, Chappie is a good movie, or at least a better movie than Elysium.

The second thing is a funny debate that started with Gravity – what is science fiction? Before Gravity, people automatically called any movie with outer space in it science fiction, even if it featured no science (or bad science). Gravity was so bad in its depiction of science that a lot of people referred to it as either an action drama or an action fantasy. I happen to be one of those people – just because a movie takes place in outer space, doesn’t make it science fiction. That would be like saying any movie that takes place in the forest or features non-human creatures is a nature movie. Would you say Twilight is nature fiction? Chappie is a great example of science fiction. Yes, sentient robots are currently just a fantasy, but we are actively trying to create exactly that right now (and it’s scaring the bejeezus out of a lot of people). That’s the science part.

The third thing is innovations in filmmaking. After watching the Oscars – and all of the people who vote on them – continue their annual tradition of pretending every movie not debuted at a film festival doesn’t exist (“here’s your token special effects award, Interstellar”), I realized that we’re in an incredible time of innovation in movies. In the last twenty years, we’ve seen bullet-time, immersive 3-D (Avatar only), quantum leaps in animation (thank you, Dreamworks and Pixar), IMAX (non-documentaries), and staggeringly improved CGI. But maybe the best innovation is motion capture. Back when Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, I said that Andy Serkis should have won an Oscar for his performance as Caesar and I stand by that (that guy from The Artist – Jean Dujardin – won it for a silent film). In Chappie, we have another incredible motion capture performance, this time from Sharlto Copley as Chappie, sure to be ignored as hard as Serkis was, in favor of whoever stars in whatever biopics are coming out this year.

(Unrelated note: When Eddie Redmayne was announced as this year’s winner for Best Lead Actor as Dr. Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, my immediate thought was that he should give it back for whatever the hell he thought he was doing in Jupiter Ascending).

The next thing I thought about was how Chappie was like a cross between Short Circuit and Robocop, but with amazing special effects (mild SPOILERS coming up, but nothing that will ruin the movie for you). If you’ve seen the previews for Chappie, you probably already noticed this. Like Number “Johnny” 5, Chappie starts his existence as a weaponized robot, comes alive, must learn about the world, learns that humans lie, and must avoid being destroyed by a maniacal military guy (Hugh Jackman) and other deadly robots. There’s even a creator (Deon) of the sentient robot (in Chappie’s case, Dev Patel) who defies his employer to help the robot. The Robocop similarities are mostly visual (a large bipedal, tank-ish robot and the concept of a robotic police force in a crumbling city) because Robocop wasn’t exactly brimming with deeper meaning or allegory.

Speaking of Hugh Jackman, it was great to see him play against type as the villain in Chappie. Most actors aren’t talented enough to make you forget their other hero/villain roles, but Jackman is so convincing as the greedy, power-hungry, asshole villain, Vincent Moore, that you never once think of him as Wolverine. All you can think is that you hope Chappie crushes Moore’s windpipe like a beer can before the credits roll. Aside from that, I also couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculous way they made Jackman look. Picture Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter), but with huge muscles and shorter bangs. Yes, that includes mullet and khaki shorts. Now, picture that guy walking around an office filled with cubicles and try not to snort your drink out through your nose.

Because of the social commentary found in Blomkamp’s other movies (apartheid, class warfare), the final thing I thought about – and the one I spent the most time on – was what Blomkamp was trying to TELL us this time around. This is also where I spent time thinking about the plot and realizing that it was not particularly good. The problem is that Blomkamp was attempting a commentary on what it means to be human, what the soul is, and how impressionable children are while setting the movie in a plot focusing on a small group of criminals who want to rob an armored car. That clanking sound you hear is your brain trying to process that last sentence.

Their plan centers around kidnapping Deon because they believe the robots have a remote off switch (they don’t) and accidentally discover he has a dissembled robot in his car. They force him to build the robot, name him Chappie, then try to teach Chappie to fire a gun and act like a gangster. Compounding that is Moore having an inner tantrum over the CEO (Sigourney Weaver) refusing to increase his funding in favor of Deon’s robots and the CEO simultaneously refusing to allow Deon to test his new artificial intelligence because Deon said the robot could write poetry. Incidentally, the CEO outright dismissing AI was the most confusing thing that happened in this movie. How bad of a CEO do you have to be to dismiss a technology that would make billions (if not trillions) of dollars? And if Deon’s robots are so successful and cost effective, why is Moore’s project not completely mothballed and defunded? It’s poetic justice that an ex-military nut (Moore) ends up destroying their entire business – she earned it. It’s bad writing like this that is earning Chappie’s 22% Rotten Tomatoes score.

If you can get past the movie’s surface plot being junk and the screenplay’s repeated emphasis on details that never come back into play, you’ll end up enjoying the meat of the movie revolving around Chappie and his growth and learning. As shallow as the story and most of the characters are, the Chappie character is extremely well-developed, and to a lesser extent, so is his mommy (the lone female in the gang). The film isn’t close to as good as District 9, but it is a better flick than Elysium simply because of its scaled back world. I just wish Blomkamp and wife had spent more time fleshing out a better plot and less time tricking out Chappie.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and remember to vote motion capture.

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