Scott F. Evans
Chappie is terrible. Bad films come and go, but Neill Blomkamp’s third feature actually made me angry. I haven’t been this angry at a movie since Lee Daniels’ The Butler. That movie offended me as a Black man and lover of history. Chappie pisses me off as a filmgoer and lover of the genre.
The warning signs presented themselves early on. Chappie’s initial trailers sold it as a new millennium Short Circuit; the adventures of a precious, childlike robot developing humanity (wrapped in Blomkamp’s distinct visual style). But as the release date drew closer, the advertising suddenly changed. Chappie became a violent, hardcore, futuristic thriller. Something closer in tone to Robocop than the family friendly film that was suggested by earlier promos. What initially looked like confusion on the part of Columbia Pictures’ marketing department was actually a fairly accurate depiction of the final film. Chappie is a complete tonal mess. It fluctuates from cloying attempts at cuteness to graphic violence. This schizophrenia even extends down to its human leads.
Chappie’s biggest name by far is Hugh Jackman. He plays the villainous Vincent Moore. Moore (the creator of a clunky, tank-like assault robot nicknamed MOOSE) is supposed to be an engineer. Unfortunately he dresses like a safari hunter and wears a sidearm around the office. Jackman is terrible in this, overplaying nearly every scene he’s in. But to be fair, Moore is written like a cartoon character so maybe the actor is doing the best he can with a lousy script.
The other A-lister is Sigourney Weaver. All told, she’s got maybe ten minutes of screen time and could have shot her scenes over a couple days. She’s not bad, but clearly only in this to add star power and credibility to a film whose real stars are a couple of obscure South African rappers. We’ll get there.
Blomkamp favorite, Sharlto Copley, provides the voice and motion-capture movement for the lead role of Chappie. It’s hard to accurately judge his performance because he’s given such awful material to work with. His accent and vocal stylings – coupled with the digitized post production work done to his voice – make much of his dialogue unintelligible. When Chappie gains sentience, he’s like a newborn domesticated animal. He’s taught by his “parents”, rap duo Die Antwoord, to behave like a white person’s idea of an inner city gangster. So between his timid skittering around and “gangsta swag”, Chappie is easily one of the most annoying figures in recent cinema history, maybe second only to Jar Jar Binks.
Dev Patel plays Chappie’s creator, Deon Wilson. In a better movie, he’d be the heart of this piece as he struggles to teach Chappie what it means to be human. But here, he’s completely surrounded by clownish, poorly written characters. He’s overshadowed by Jackman (who’s trying too hard) and the scenery chewing character of Ninja… played by Ninja.
And here we are.
Although Chappie is the defacto lead character, you could argue that the film itself is an ensemble piece. Blomkamp makes the unfortunate choice of making the white South African rap group Die Antwoord main characters in the movie. Ninja and Yolandi Visser play themselves and they are easily the most disruptive, damaging elements in this mess of a project. It’s a mystery why Blomkamp gives them so much screen time. They’re not good actors, though Visser comes off stronger than Ninja, but that’s a pretty low bar. Their overall look is distracting and it’s often hard to understand what they’re saying. These are the type of characters that would have been relegated to supporting or cameo roles in a better film. I’ll just assume that Blomkamp’s a super fan, since he took the huge risk of hanging his film on this obscure duo.
There’s also a strong undercurrent of racism in Chappie. In a film set in South Africa, there are no significant Black characters. Blomkamp got away with this in his first feature District 9 because it was a meditation on race. Here, the only major character of color is an Indian and he’s the weakest of the cast. To accompany Ninja’s offensive black affectations, there’s Hippo. The side villain (played by Brandon Auret) is a white gangster who wears what looks like Bantu Knots in the top of his head and dreads down the back. He also runs around shirtless for most of the film and leads a small army of predominantly black drug dealers. In essence, Hippo is Tarzan. Not to be outdone, Jose Pablo Cantillo plays Die Antwoord’s partner Yankie, also known as Amerika. For some reason, Yankie/Amerika is played as a stereotypical Latino gang banger. He’s such an afterthought that we never find out what he’s doing in South Africa or why he’s mixed up with these comical Afrikaaner criminals.
For a sci-fi film that wants to be thoughtful, Chappie is offensively stupid. It also believes that it’s a heartwarming tale of family and friendship, but features graphic violence, and completely unlikable lead characters. There’s also a third act development where Chappie learns how to transfer human consciousness from place to place with the assistance of a wall of PS4’s. No, really. Not only is that absurd, it feels like Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell just tacked on that stupid little storyline to give the film an unearned happy ending.
This movie is wack…
Blomkamp is a strong visualist. His camera is a little intrusive at times but the effects are seamless. The ED-209 knockoff MOOSE is exceptionally well designed and deserved more screen time. I’ll also give him credit for playing with the clichéd man vs machine trope. Terminator, The Matrix, etc all took the same position that sentient robots will lead ultimately lead to disaster. Chappie dares to flip that and states in no uncertain terms that a police robot with AI would be superior, and safer than a human piloted drone like MOOSE. It’s a ridiculous claim and Blomkamp doesn’t explore the idea at all, instead giving us “The Hilarious Adventures of Die Antwoord, featuring Chappie.”
RATING: Pass (Don’t waste the two hours of your life you’ll never get back)