Far from it from me to tell a ton of people they’re wrong about Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s first movie since Elysium, but I liked it. I took a quick look at the Rotten Tomatoes rating, and it currently stands at 32%, which I find somewhat astonishing. While the movie isn’t exactly a thought-provoking meditation on the vast implications of the inevitable developments in AI, and has a plot containing some significant holes (typical of Blomkamp, the writer), I found the movie to be pretty entertaining.
Blomkamp has made a name for himself in down and dirty sci-fi, and Chappie continues that trend. I’m firmly in the camp of near-future sci-fi. I find the future dystopia/utopia concepts’ world-building to feel forced, as if their creators are just trying too hard to do something different by cherry picking elements from pre-existing media. Chappie posits a world where the bridge between artificial intelligence and actual sentience is at hand. The finest recent example of this, I feel, is Ex Machina, my favourite movie of 2015 – Alex Garland’s tale of a human recruited to test artificial intelligence might remain the pinnacle of the theme for me for a while, and though Chappie doesn’t dwell too much on the moral/spiritual questions arising from this, it uses the concept to good effect within the framework of a sci-fi action movie.
I won’t dwell too heavily on the concept either, since I’m reviewing Chappie and not Ex Machina, so suffice it to say that it does enough to make it believable within the framework of the movie. Plotwise, the story is about the corruption and redemption of innocence – here, the innocence is (presumably) the world’s first sentient robot, and the opposing forces that struggle with its soul are his “Maker”, (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), a lead developer for a corporation that has developed a fully functional robotic police droid, and a trio of lowlife crooks and would-be gangsters, played by The Walking Dead’s Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er of the South African rap/rave act, Die Antwoord. The biggest thing I got from this movie was that Ninja and Yo-Landi more than hold their own in this movie. I’m already a fan of most of their music, but it’s extremely difficult for someone who might be good in one medium to successfully cross over to another without it feeling forced. I’m not sure how much ambition either of them have to continue in movies, but I found them to be naturals; they’re both extremely good in their roles – even though they’re playing “versions” of themselves, it’s clear they have some acting talent. I enjoyed each of them whenever they appeared.
Rounding out the cast are Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman. Weaver is mostly under-used in a paycheque role, while Jackman’s character supplies the movie’s major subplot. He’s in it more than she is, but the subplot of “bad tech people” is already a trope of Blomkamp’s and it feels tired. If he has the ability to do so, it’s time he came up with a different kind of antagonist. In some respects, you could take Damon Lindelof out of Prometheus and drop in Blomkamp, and you might get the same kind of movie. Specifically, I’m talking plot points – the actual writing would have been superior. Three high profile movies into his career, it’s clear he needs to work with a different screenwriter if he’s to evolve as a writer himself. The biggest plot holes in this movie relate to the simple logistics of security; while Johannesburg devolves into chaos, the company supplying the robots that woiuld otherwise keep the peace is an a building with almost zero security; people seem able to come and go as they please, and the fact that the company places its entire future on the security of one piece of equipment is an absolutely ludicrous script failing. The item in question has such lax security protocols around it, my eyes rolled so much I could read the wrinkles on the brain. There are a couple other things that nag at me – do we really need another combat robot that looks like the ED-209 from the seminal Robocop? Do we really need another “science BAD!” ending, even though it’s disguised by a humanistic tone? I like to think at some point moviemakers will embrace that science and humanism actually CAN go hand in hand, instead of these cop-out endings that are only really versions of the old “there are some things man was never meant to know” of the old school pulps.
As a director, though, I have no complaints with Blomkamp. He’s a director who has a natural instinct for action set pieces, and wisely, should he stick to this genre, he zips along with relatively few expository scenes. When I heard that Blade Runner was getting a sequel, I immediately thought Blomkamp would be a great fit for it (I still do). In choosing Denis Villeneuve, the sequel is likely to be more cerebral in tone – not something I’ll complain about.
Another stand out here, is Chappie himself. Loved it. If I recall correctly, I read that the animators did not use motion capture for Chappie, which is hard to believe. In the early scenes following Chappie’s upgrade, it’s easy to think that there’s a real actor in a tin suit.
Like I said at the top, I’m confused as to the negative ratings of the movie. I generally don’t read other people’s reviews, but I’d really be interested in hearing why they disliked it so much. For what it’s worth, I did hate the end-end scene in the factory.