Worth A Look: 33.33%
Pretty Bad: 38.1%
Total Crap: 4.76%
2 reviews, 9 user ratings
by Brett Gallman
â€śChappieâ€ť is a lot of things: another â€śoriginalâ€ť sci-fi film cobbled together from scraps of superior predecessors, another socially conscious parable about Important Things from Neill Blomkamp, and another technically sound but hollow exercise in exploring the human condition. Most unfortunately, itâ€™s further evidence that its director is mostly a great pre-viz artist who struggles with storytelling. This is a classic case of sending a scientist to do a poetâ€™s job.Which is a disappointing diagnosis, of course. After making such an impressive debut with â€śDistrict 9,â€ť Blomkamp was anointed a savior meant to rescue the geek world from the morass of manufactured franchises and impersonal blockbusters. It was such an invigorating and wonderfully pitched tale that you left wondering how the same guy could be responsible for a film as lifeless and dumb as â€śChappie.â€ť
Set in the near future in Blomkampâ€™s native Johannesburg, it imagines a world where the city has been ravaged by crime and decay. With the human police proving to be ineffective, it enlists a patrol of cybernetic replacements created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Not content to merely be known as the guy who crafted a militarized police fleet, Wilson has been pushing to experiment with truly artificial, sentient intelligence. Having been rebuffed by his superior (Sigourney Weaver, now the head of The Company rather than its victim), he toils away at home until he finally cracks the code.
His discovery intersects with the exploits of a group of gangsters who kidnap him in the hopes that Wilson will be able to disable the police androids long enough for them to pull off a heist. Instead, he can only provide the husk of a decommissioned unit uploaded with his experimental AI parameters, a combination that births Chappie, an infantile android that begins to think and feel, just like a real boy.
I suppose â€śChappieâ€ť is something of a fairy tale, a sort of reworking of the Pinocchio story, only the title character here is stuck with the knuckleheads from Die Antwoord (Ninja & Yolandi Visser, ostensibly playing themselves) as parents. For a decent stretch, it operates on that small scale, with Chappieâ€™s creator butting heads with his surrogates over how the robot should be raised. Naturally, Ninja immediately wants to shove a handgun into his barely sentient hands in order to train him to be a gangster to aid in their heist. Wilson and Yolandi would rather be more gentle and nurturing.
There are worse (or at least less interesting) stories to tell, but the problem is that Blomkamp only knows how to tell it with the heaviest, most obvious set of hands. â€śChappieâ€ť is the sort of film where the guy who creates AI is inspired by a motivational poster featuring cats. Computer files are named â€śconsciousness.dat.â€ť Chappie, who is a reject, has a giant sticker that says â€śrejectâ€ť fixed to his head. When the disagreement about raising Chappie arises, it plays out with one father figure literally telling him to nurture his creativity, while the other chastises him for painting and playing with dolls. If â€śChappieâ€ť were anymore on the nose, itâ€™d leave an ACME logo branded on our faces.
It might as well do that, anyway. Blomkampâ€™s ability to craft a grounded, believable world with seamless CGI characters is only matched by his befuddling decision to populate it with Looney Tunes characters. Chappie himself might be the most realistic and believable one here: not only is he a technical marvel that effortlessly interacts with the actors surrounding him, but heâ€™s also the only character that makes a lick of sense (well, for the most partâ€”there is a climactic moment where he bludgeons the shit out of a guy while screaming â€śno violenceâ€ť).
I especially refuse to believe that Ninja and Yolandi are actual people, much less the heightened versions of themselves theyâ€™re playing here. Concerns about their cultural appropriation aside, casting these two is an odd, almost daring choice, if only because you donâ€™t often see people like this headlining a film with this kind of profile. They donâ€™t prove to be especially good actors, but they are intriguing, almost alien presences decked out in gaudy clothing and scribbled with ink that camouflages them in the graffiti-covered ruins they call home. Ninjaâ€™s bug-eyes constantly threaten to eject right out of his face, while Yolandiâ€™s sing-song voice is perfect for this grungy fairy tale.
Blomkampâ€™s decision to have these two play total scumbags is baffling, though. Ninja and Yolandi arenâ€™t common street hoods driven to criminal acts out of desperation: theyâ€™re straight up gangsters knee-deep in an underworld crawling with likeminded degenerates. Theyâ€™re introduced as cop-killers in the middle of a robbery; by the end of the film, youâ€™re expected to see them as goons with hearts of gold. Itâ€™s a tough sell, no matter how forcefully Blomkamp leans on dramatic slow motion sequences and cloying musical cues.
If the thought of taking Die Antwoord seriously doesnâ€™t sound tone-deaf or ridiculous enough, letâ€™s consider the case of Hugh Jackman in the role of a disgruntled ex-soldier with an absurd mullet. Sort of the Dick Jones to Wilsonâ€™s Bob Morton, he pushes his own idea to assist the local police force: a giant, unwieldy ED-209 knockoff that would be piloted by a human. Somehow, this isnâ€™t preferable to the walking automatons Wilson creates, and so he sits and stews about it in his cubicle.
In a movie full of cartoon characters, Jackman is Wile E. Coyote: he peers around corners with binoculars to spy on Chappieâ€™s development, he glowers from across the room at Wilson at every opportunity, and heâ€™s completely oblivious when heâ€™s pitching anti-aircraft features to a police force. Imagine â€śRobocopâ€ť stripped of its satire, or just recall last yearâ€™s ill-fated reboot.
Predictably, Jackmanâ€™s breakdown leads an already overstuffed movie to an overblown climax. In keeping with Blomkampâ€™s simplistic, broadly sketched worldview, Johannesburg descends into chaos as soon as its robot fleet is unexpectedly shut down. He seems to have little affection for his old hometown, which is consistently presented as the sort of hellhole where teenagers will assault and light a poor, unsuspecting robot on fire. This and other visually-striking sequences are engaging enough in a vacuum, but Blomkampâ€™s shoddy framework canâ€™t bear the weight. â€śChappieâ€ť isnâ€™t a coherent storyâ€”itâ€™s a collection of pitch reels, complete with wildly varying tones and character motivations from once scene to the next.
Watching the final product unfold is confounding, particularly because it seems to be so cocksure about its own importance. Like Ninja himself, â€śChappieâ€ť struts along, completely unaware of how fucking dumb it looks. Between its subplots and thematic posturing, it seems to be about so much, yet says so little. Certainly, it says nothing that hasnâ€™t already been better articulated by the films guiding Blomkampâ€™s heavy hand. For all its discussions about consciousness and humanity, â€śChappieâ€ť seems disinterested in these subjects, as it treats souls like re-spawn points in a video game.
Itâ€™s almost fitting and prophetic that Blomkampâ€™s anointing was at the hands of Peter Jackson, another fallen idol who has spent the past five years playing with toys with the pretense of making movies. Further telling is Blomkampâ€™s plan to work alongside Ridley Scott for the next â€śAlienâ€ť installment, a gig that just might double as a glimpse into the mirror: like Scott, Blomkamp is a gifted technical director with a keen eye and a spotty track record when it comes to graceful and emotional storytelling. All three of these men may be headed towards complicated legacies, though itâ€™s admittedly too early to damn Blomkamp.
Maybe he recovers from the dregs of â€śChappieâ€ť and â€śElysium,â€ť but itâ€™s fair to wonder if â€śDistrict 9â€ť was a fluke rather than the herald of a great talent. Once destined to deliver genre filmmaking from prefabricated junk, Blomkamp has resorted to churning out just that. While he might be cannibalizing from the scrapheap of his own short films and infusing them with oddball choices (like it or not, â€śChappieâ€ť is basically a $50 million Die Antwoord music video, and thatâ€™s nuts), itâ€™s still junk all the same.Not that anyone wants to conjure ghosts of more genre disappointments, but remember the climax of â€śRevenge of the Sith,â€ť where Obi-Wan expressed his disappointment as Anakin Skywalker was consumed by lava? Thatâ€™s where I am with Blomkamp right now. He was the Chosen One. Letâ€™s hope he doesnâ€™t end up as a cautionary tale.
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originally posted: 03/07/15 18:37:33