IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 120 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In an effort to reduce the high crime rate in Johannesburg, the South African police force purchases armour-plated attack robots from weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, created by Deon Wilson, which prove successful in reducing crime. Engineer Vincent Moore has funding stopped for his own attack robot, MOOSE, which is derided for its reliance on a human operator. At home, Deon creates a prototype artificial intelligence that mimics a human mind to the point of feeling emotions and having opinions, but Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley denies him permission to test the A.I. on a police robot. Undeterred, Deon steals a recently damaged robot before it is destroyed and puts it in his van, along with the “guard key” needed to update the robot’s software. On his way home, he is kidnapped by a group of gangsters who threaten to kill him unless he reprograms a police robot to fight for them….
It always seems to be a problem when a filmmaker’s first film is really, really good. No matter how strong any follow-up movies may be in their own right, they will usually be compared unfavourably to the director’s first film. This isn’t at all a new thing; Orson Welles suffered from it big time, he never supposedly having topped Citizen Kane even if to my mind The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch Of Evil and The Trial certainly work just as well, at least in terms of what they set out out to do. Neill Blomkamp’s curse is that his District 9 was so damn superb in its melding of science-fiction and social commentary, of intelligence and sheer entertainment value, that any successive film he makes seems to be unfavourably compared to it, even if they’re intended as stand-alone pictures. Elysium stumbled a little with its attempted balancing act of blockbuster action movie and socially conscious polemic, and Blomkamp’s employment of the often infuriating, though depressingly widespread ‘shakycam’ style, which undoubtedly worked well within the documentary aesthetic of District 9, was just an annoyance, but it was still a solid piece which at least tried to be intelligent within its obvious restrictions.
Though its IMDB rating is currently reasonably high, a fact which probably means that those folk who are actually going to see the movie are actually enjoying it, Chappie, which is based on Blomkamp’s own short film Tetra Vaal, is flopping at the box office, while reviews have been mostly mixed with a distinct leaning towards ‘poor’. Well, I’m going to go against the [at least critical] grain [nothing new there, though I don’t think I’ve done this in a major way for a while] and say that I really enjoyed Chappie. It’s certainly heavily derivative, to the point where you can pretty much describe it as a cross between Robocop [particularly the classic original movie] and Short Circuit, and films which deal with issues like what it is to be human, and consciousness being something that can be built and uploaded/downloaded, seem to be especially popular at the moment. The well-reviewed Ex Machina dealt with similar things, and it seems that Avengers: Age Of Ultron will, at least in part, do so, while robots with emotion are never currently far from our screens, though while I was watching Chappie I kept thinking of tales like Frankenstein, where a basically inhuman, if created from human parts, tries to gain, and keep, some humanity in the face of rejection an mistreatment from most of humankind. These are important and deep themes, so it’s no surprise that they keep on turning up, especially in today’s increasingly digitised world where things are progressing in quite a scary direction at an alarming speed.
Chappie, like Elysium, tries hard to be good escapism, with lots of action, while still trying to make you think. There’s less of Blomkamp’s usual social commentary, though it still turns up as the film looks at injustice and discrimination in our world, and there are still elements of futuristic satire. It does feel initially like you’re in the territory of Blomkamp’s debut feature as the film is initially shot as a documentary with a news broadcast by actual American broadcaster Anderson Cooper, as well as interviews with two of the film’s main characters. Almost immediately after though you get a visceral shoot-out scene which, as with the later action sequences, limits the shakycam so the action is clean and easy to follow, yet still has the basic feeling of realism which seems to be a Blomkamp trademark even if it takes place in fantastical settings, though once again this future doesn’t seem very fantastical and certainly not far off, with even the machinery having a worn, old look and feel to it.
The tight script sets up its world and characters succinctly and then doesn’t waste any time in bringing its title character to life. Chappie is immediately an extremely lovable character who, despite having to learn human traits, and his first act on being brought to life being to hide, instantly comes across as being more human and even rounded than all the flesh and blood characters in the film with the exception of his inventor Deon. The story soon focuses on a battle for Chappie’s soul. Two gangsters, Ninja and Yolandi, want to use him to commit crimes for them, though Yolandi has second thoughts about what Chappie is being required to do. Deon, whose first act in the film is to suggest a robot who can read poetry to a predictably hostile reception [once again, the primary function of technology is as a weapon, or at least as a form of control], is against Chappie being turned into a villain. Meanwhile there’s another bad guy around, a guy who has a robot very much like Robocop’s ED-209 waiting around for some action. You just know that poor Chappie is going to have to face off against this far more powerful machine, and indeed the majority of events in this film are telegraphed up to a point.
The film’s fast pace partly prevents from the story going really deeply into the moral and scientific issues, but they’re still there. Despite all the blazing action, there’s a great deal of heart to some of the proceedings. If you loved Johnny 5 as a kid and loved Wall-E as an adult [I plead guilty], then your heart may go out to the steadily growing infant in a titanium body as he’s pulled in different directions and generally mistreated. In one especially sad moment he’s abandoned out in the big wide world under the pretext that he has to learn to survive. It helps immensely that he’s voiced by the brilliant Sharlto Copley, who really proves what an expressive [and within considerable limitations] voice actor he is, while his facial animation is also superb in a film which is technically first class throughout. The gradual humanisation of his captors is nicely handled. Meanwhile the humour in Chappie is generally in the service of the story and its themes, like when Chappie is recruited to help steal cars and immediately wrecks one, or, in a great mixing of comedy and a rather touching situation, Chappie tries to hide a girly doll he has which resembles Yolandi from Ninja. Overall Chappie is a tough one [though there’s less graphic violence than Blomkamp’s previous two films], and can’t really be called subtle, but there are delicately affecting moments. It just leaves you slightly unsatisfied, because it tries to be a speculative science-fiction parable, a more conventional actioner, and an examination of certain issues all at once and doesn’t quite succeed. Blomkamp tries to do a bit too much and ends up having to cut some aspects short, but it doesn’t especially harm the film. As well as everything else, he’s just out to entertain.
The performances are a strange mix of different styles. Devi Patel is nicely restrained, Hugh Jackman is just enjoying himself, while, despite there having been much criticism of the buffoonish performances by South African musical duo Die Antwoord, they partly fit their over-the-top characters. Their rather catchy mixture of hop hop and techno fits well into the film and easily overshadows Hans Zimmer’s dull, bland score. Chappie is certainly no unsung masterpiece, but it’s a pretty enjoyable two hours with something to say and a good deal of emotional depth, being more than anything else a touching parable of innocence and loss. It seems unlikely than Blomkamp’s partly planned sequels will occur but I think it’s rather a shame. The final few scenes, especially the last one, suggest some interesting pathways a continuing story could go down.