Sci-Fi Film Review: "Chappie" (Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell , Directed by Neill Blomkamp)
Blomkamp Directs The Hell Out Of His Film With Sweeping Visuals and Visceral Action But Lacks The Trendsetting Storytelling Instincts He Weaved In Prior Outings
So, the verdict is in, ladies and gentlemen. Sharlto Copley (the voice of "Chappie") is a poor man's Andy Serkis ("Gollum" in the 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' films). He definitely won't be in the running as the heir to the motion capture empire built by Serkis but nevertheless he gives it his all. It is just too bad that the rest of the film touts several very potent ideas, boasts Director Blomkamps's eye for detail and distinct camerawork and also has a compelling if madman villain in Hugh Jackman, yet perverts a lot of these elements that really don't quite come together on the whole. Like Chappie's severed arm in the 1st act of the film, the minute that occurs is really when the whole production went off the rails despite the noble efforts by all involved. You can tell Blomkamp and his wife and frequent writing/producing partner Terri Tatchell wanted to tell a story that utilized the powerful political subtext of "District 9" and the mass-scale dystopia/peons vs. Mega corporations story arc of "Elysium" mixed in with a tail-end bit of the Johnny Depp starrer and "The Dark Knight" cinematographer Wally Pfister's 2014 directorial debut "Transcendence" but got too big for their britches and the result was a cacophonous mess.
But, before I lay out the many-fold faults of this film, I will first illuminate the positives. Despite what review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes has to say as they've awarded the film all but a disturbingly paltry 29% overall score, the film, in this reviewer's mind is NOT a wall-to-wall failure. Its shortcomings certainly give the indication that there was a quality film lurking around somewhere within the scrap-heap, it just couldn't be salvaged in time. For starters, the opening 20 minutes are outstanding and riveting. Calling to mind the classics "Bladerunner" and "Total Recall" as well as the excellent Isaac Asimov 2004 adaptation "I, Robot", we find the world, in this case the prime setting being the native director's own Johannesburg, South Africa in the not too distant future encased in rampant crime and overall destruction. Most citizens live in densely populated urban ghettos where shootings, muggings and drug trafficking are a routine occurrence. At this point, most human police forces have been replaced by a programmable, upgrade-ready and easily adaptable type of robot called the Scouts who boast advanced AI and agility to outperform their mammalian counterparts in every way. Using facial recognition, they are able to profile their targets with pinpoint precision and issue arrests by tapping into worldwide databases to look up arrest records and other pertinent information that pretty much has made the time consuming judicial system a relic of the past. This has resulted in significantly reduced crime rates and billions of dollars pumped into the founding corporation for manufacturing them that’s generated significant revenue. This sequence is blisteringly quick as it showcases the deployment of the Scouts shooting at and making grand, swift arrests as they fire missiles at fleeing helicopters, round up rag-tag criminals and haul them off, etc. This is nicely inter-cut with news images from TV stations reporting on the action and even Anderson Cooper makes an appearance saying that 2016 was a turning point for worldwide crime with the advent of the robots. It makes for a very urgent and poignant case and the set up really takes the wind out of you. The fact that Blomkamp, much like he did in District 9, chose to set the events of the film in South Africa which of course has been in the national eye for years with Apartheid, the prison sentencing and subsequent freeing of Nelson Mandela and the civil war existing within the nation, was a terrific and seemingly natural choice. Unfortunately, the narrative becomes rather misshapen after this point that doesn't totally evaporate what came before but causes a strange and underwhelming disconnect.
Casting and acting wise, this isn't a film hoping to take home any honors. However, one of the bright spots (thank Heavens) is the always dependable and ever so rugged Hugh Jackman as Vincent Moore who dons his native Australian accent for the role which is a breath of fresh air all on its own. He portrays an old-school weapons designer and ex-Marine who utterly detests the Scouts because they've resulted in many funds being funneled out of his research and designs for 4-story tall mechs that are propelled by humans via neural helmets where the human user is able to guide his machines into battle and still make judgments that the machine ordinarily might not. However, the Scout's AI and CPU is so advanced that it essentially reproduces the functionality of a human brain that is involved in decision making and rationality even during periods of stress and traumatic confrontation. Moore's genuine hatred for the machines and their creator Deon Wilson (played by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) is his prime motivation for doing everything humanly possible to sabotage what has worked for years all to further his own ends. He leaves his total Wolverine bad-ass heroics at the door and really lives and breathes this character and turns those qualities to the inverse. Much like Will Smith's Del Spooner in "I, Robot" was anti-robot and techno-phobic, Jackman's Moore presents a more deadly force because he has the knowledge to implement powerful tactical weaponry to throw a wrench in the Scout's and in Deon's mission to provide a safer world. It is a fascinating dynamic carved out by Jackman and he ably steps up to the plate.
Save for Jackman, the rest of the cast is MOSTLY forgettable. Dev Patel either still hasn't been offered the role he needs to take his career further or just isn't that talented and credible of an actor. In Deon Wilson, he essentially portrays a slight variation of his 'Newsroom' character only with less-superior writing (it’s kind of hard to top Aaron Sorkin) and a few too many nervous ticks. We get that he is a super intelligent programmer and there is plenty of him typing away feverishly at the keys with coding sequences to bludgeon that point to death. What we don't get is his confidence and command that he needs to make this character, the central protagonist, more believable. And the biggest issue of all is that he lets his experimental invention, a revamped droid later given the name Chappie, slip all too easily through his fingers. After being robbed at gunpoint by a bunch of two-bit crooks, played to exaggerated extremes by the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord who retain their stage names Yolandi and Ninja in the film, Deon all too quickly establishes a shaky allegiance with them even though there is no actual payoff. The career criminals want to program Chappie to join their ranks and carry out heists and take their operation to the next level and stop slumming with mediocre jobs. To do this, they enlist Deon who possesses the insight and knowledge to get Chappie up to speed. The catch is that he must come back each day to their ramshackle residence to train Chappie since he is in Deon's words "like a more advanced child" and the process has to happen gradually. Ninja, the more quick-tempered and belligerent of the two, wants instantaneous gratification and threatens Deon to make him learn quickly. My one big hole in this whole thing - Deon is essentially a millionaire and if he wanted can have an army of these things descending upon these wannabe gangsters in a hot minute and reclaim his invention and proceed forward. He gives in like a scared schoolboy about to wet his trousers, and for someone with a triple digit IQ, panders to these morons with little justification or promise that he'll survive the alliance. It didn't make any sense to me but I went with it anyone hoping Blomkamp would pull a District 9 and do something unexpected to make this seem logical. He didn't ultimately, but he did give plenty of action. Oh and speaking of wasted plot elements, Sigourney Weaver might as well have been a cardboard dummy and not the flesh and blood actress most closely associated with the "Alien" and "Avatar" films. She spends the film talking up a big game about her corporation, making a few executive decisions and telling Moore to fuck off with the deployment of his "Moose" bot, but ultimately never leaves the office. She is just an empty figurehead with all bark and barely any bite. It was utterly dispiriting because she's so capable of great things and Blomkamp all but eschewed any promise and utility that she could have served in the film and crushed it under the weight of his grand production. Between Patel and her, I debated on which actor under performed more but I decided to settle on Weaver since ultimately about 3/4's of the way in, he grows some balls and finally takes action as he is nearing death.
Oh, and let me revisit Sharlto Copley's Chappie for a second. He is NOT the laughingstock that Jar-Jar Binks was in the 'Star Wars' prequel trilogy but he is also not as charismatic and potent a presence as Ron Perlman's heavily made-up and CGI 'Hellboy' was either. I suppose he falls somewhere in between but his tin-sounding and nasally voice does get annoying even when he talks in brief half-sentences. For his part, he too initially acts scared (Yolandi asserts that he is "just a kid" after all), and as he grows up - from a promising young artist, to a thug, to a martial arts and weapons expert, back to a thug and robber, and, finally, to a high-level and truly self-aware programmer with access to all information a ‘la "Transcendence" his personal journey is worth witnessing. It is a real sin though that a good majority of the film is so disjointed around him. He could have been really something if given something more worth fighting for other than his consciousness. This trope and bit of speculative sci-fi as to whether consciousness is just 0s and 1s or connected to a soul is a ceaseless debate that will never have an end in sight. "Chappie" doesn't really provide empirical answers nor does it have any right to, but it could have at least wrapped this in something resembling ingenuity. "District 9" put Blomkamp on the map as "top new directors to watch" and he sure as hell earned it. Now, I am beginning to think he's a one-hit wonder. Hopefully his 'Alien 5' movie which was just green-lit will prove I'm wrong.