Tuesday, March 17, 2015

CHAPPIE Is B-Movie Silliness Disguised as High-Concept Blockbuster


- Please don't suck. Please don't suck. Please don't suck. That is the rallying cry and internal monologue of film geeks as a much-anticipated movie begins - especially one in which the quality of the movie is far from guaranteed going in. CHAPPIE was a movie that I really wanted to be good. Really wanted to be *great*. I still will go to bat any day of the week for District 9. That movie blew me away back in 2009, and it seemed to send a strong message that its co-writer and director, Neill Blomkamp, was a major new voice in blockbuster filmmaking - here was a guy who was here to stay. Suffice it to say, the expectations for Blomkamp's follow-up, Elysium, were sky high. And the movie was ... meh. Blomkamp's visual flair was still evident, but the story felt flat and uninspired. With that in mind, CHAPPIE had a (possibly unfair) feeling of make-or-break for Blomkamp. Would it be a return to form, or another stumble? The stakes felt even higher with the news that Blomkamp would be directing the upcoming Alien sequel. Fans (myself included) wanted reassurance that that beloved franchise was in good hands. So ... here's the thing: I'm still pretty confident that Blomkamp can and will deliver the goods when it comes to badass sci-fi visuals and hard-hitting action scenes. At the same time, Chappie *really* makes me want to see Blomkamp teamed with some great writers on Alien and whatever other projects he tackles subsequently. CHAPPIE has some really cool visuals, but overall it's the weakest film Blomkamp has done to date. It's got script problems - big ones. And the result is a movie that ends up being jaw-dropping, but in all the wrong ways.

There are a lot of things in CHAPPIE that I admire in theory. I dig the basic concept - that of a police robot destined for the scrap-heap, salvaged by his creator and implanted with an upgrade that allows him true sentience. I like the visual aesthetic of the film, and the design of Chappie. In general, I'm a big fan of Blomkamp's gritty, 80's sci-fi-inspired design sense. I even like, in theory, the concept of casting the punked-out members of South African rap-rave band Die Antwoord as principle characters. I mean, why not? The whole film has an 80's sci-fi aesthetic, and a lot of beloved 80's genre movies have memorable appearances from musicians trying their hands at acting, from Bowie in Labyrinth to Isaac Hayes in Escape From New York. In theory, it's a bold, sorta cool movie. In theory.

But in practice, in the execution, so much of CHAPPIE ends up eliciting eye-rolls rather than fist-pumps. The story has numerous beats that feel off. Sometimes the film feels like it's straight-up ripping off Robocop. Witness Hugh Jackman as Vincent Moore - a loose-cannon engineer whose war-machine robot is pretty much just the ED-209. Sometimes, the movie seems tone-def about its characters. Die Antwoord's Ninja and Yo-Landi (playing odd alternate-universe versions of themselves) essentially go from being the movie's villains to its heroes without any real narrative arc driving that turn. And sometimes, as with the film's bat$%#&-crazy ending, the plot twists feel less like the work of a visionary and more like the fevered fan-fic of an overstimulated ten year old.

The underlying problem here is that Blomkamp seems to constantly be thinking about how best to deliver big, ain't-that-cool moments while also trying to infuse his films with legit social commentary and meaning. But the two halves do not form a cohesive whole. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that, for example, I get how the movie's ending perhaps seemed cool - could have been cool - on paper. But in practice it's laughable, because there's no semblance of human emotion driving it. Stuff happens, and we - and the characters - are asked to just go with it without the slightest hint of dramatic weight or emotional resonance. It's the same reason why Ninja sort of sucks as an antihero. There's no depth to his character - nothing to make us find it in our hearts to root for him when all we know of him is that he seems like a relatively heartless tool. But he's punk and named Ninja, so I guess we're supposed to embrace him? Yo-Landi is at least a little more sympathetic - she seems to genuinely care for Chappie. But that's all there is to her. How did she end up with Ninja? Are they supposed to be a band in the movie? Why does she stay with him despite him seeming to be an abusive maniac? The characters here all feel like cardboard cut-outs. Hugh Jackman's Vincent is similarly confounding. I'm all for having a crazy, over-the-top badguy in this sort of film. But Vincent just does stuff without any discernible motivation. He wants his ED-209-esque war-bot to get approved for mass-production and deployment, and he tries to accomplish that - and quell fears that it's dangerous - by taking it on a joyride of mass-destruction? This is a movie largely devoid of recognizable human behavior. At one point, an enraged Vincent pulls a gun on his office-mate in the middle of a crowded cubicle farm -- and everyone seems pretty unfazed.

The office-mate who has the gun pulled on him is Dev Patel's Deon - who is initially set up to be the movie's main hero. But it shows how structurally broken the film is that Deon ends up disappearing for long stretches of the movie - letting the increasingly aimless Ninja and Yo-Landi take center stage. Deon is the young robotics rock star who created the line of police-bots that spawned Chappie. And a movie primarily about Deon teaching a newly-sentient Chappie about morals and humanity in order to fight off a soulless robotic force guided by Vincent could have been a fun sci-fi premise. But the movie gets so bogged down in everything else - in the Die Antwoord stuff, in endless scenes of Chappie learning to be gangsta (which often come off as just silly) - that by the third act we're not really sure *what* this movie is or what it's trying to be.

The one thing that CHAPPIE really has going for it is Chappie. The visual f/x around Chappie are honestly some of the best and most seamless motion-capture CGI I've ever seen in a film. At most points in the film, you'd be hard-pressed to say with certainty that what we're seeing is CG and not some sort of practical f/x work. Chappie looks fantastic, and a lot of that also has to do with the amazing mo-cap work done by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley - who voices and gives life to Chappie. Copley kills it. He not only makes Chappie feel real and alive, but he makes him likable despite a script that does him no favors, and that makes him grow from simple and child-like to omniscient super-being in a span of minutes.

CHAPPIE has some pretty solid action, but nothing in the same league as District 9. The big difference, of course, is that District 9 had a ton of emotional weight behind its big action set pieces. CHAPPIE - tone deaf as it is - more often than not fails to get the ol' adrenaline pumping. The basic building blocks of good action are there - Blomkamp knows how to stage some kick-ass asskickery. But the plot and emotional arcing of the movie is so all-over-the-map that it's often difficult to discern a.) character motivations, and b.) filmmaker intentions. Is a scene meant to be disturbing or fun? Are these characters supposed to be kewl or off-putting? And, oh ... couldn't the film have found a better use for the great Sigourney Weaver than just having her play a generic hard-ass CEO?

The more I think about CHAPPIE, the more I begrudgingly admire some of its weirdness. I mean, the fact that Blomkamp gives so much screentime to the (admittedly sort of fascinating) Yo-Landi and Ninja, the fact that Hugh Jackman's villain is a complete nutcase whose actions make no sense, the fact that the ending is so completely bugnuts insane - all of it sort of endears me to this movie. And if CHAPPIE were some weird midnight-movie oddity, then it might be easier to enjoy as just a strange B-movie in the vein of so many nutty sci-fi B-movies from the 80's-era golden age that Blomkamp clearly has an affection for. But this film clearly aspires to more than B-movie novelty. Like each of Blomkamp's movies to date, it wants to say things about society and class, and to have deeper thematic texture than your average sci-fi shoot-'em-up. And CHAPPIE - even more so than Elysium - just sort of falls apart as anything other than B-movie action. It goes to show that you can have the best f/x in the world - and the biggest of ambitions - but without a smart script and great characters, you're left with a dud. CHAPPIE, sadly, is a dud. You've got to give it credit for daring to be weird in certain ways, but you've also got to dock it points for being generic and brain-dead in too many other ways. Robocop this ain't. I've not yet given up on Blomkamp, and I remain hopeful that he can evolve into a visual stylist who helps breathe life into great scripts from other writers. But CHAPPIE is seemingly damning evidence that the guy can't do it all on his own.

My Grade: C

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