Monday, March 23, 2015

"Chappie" Review: The Assembly Line Story Is Bolstered By A Strong Performance From Star Sharlto Copley


By this time you likely already know from friends, the media or simply by watching the trailer that Chappie liberally uses the key plot points from such classics as Short Circuit and Robocop to an almost incomprehensible degree. So instead of giving the rundown on why Chappie is going to be forever known as the bastard stepchild of those other movies, we are going to focus mostly on the aspects of the film that many seem to be glossing over which sadly has relegated the film to a much poorer reception than it likely deserved. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: Digital 2D             
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 54 min
Studio: Sony Pictures
Release Date: March 6, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: District 9
Likes: Sharlto Copley, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Neill Blomkamp's vision
Neutral:  Elysium
Hates: Ninja (the character) and how he corrupts Chappie
Next up for Blomkamp?: A new Alien sequel...no, really.


It's the near future, Johannesburg South Africa is a war zone. A cesspool of crime and villainy that was once on its last leg, the people of Johannesburg have found new hope as it has become the testing ground for the brand new robotic police enforcement plan. The Scout robot, a creation of the young and eager genius Devon (Dev Patel)  are owned and controlled by BLANK (Sigourney Weaver) to police the city. While Devon is busy trying to construct the world's very first A.I. consciousness, his co-worker/rival BLANK (Hugh Jackman sporting a ridiculous mullet) is busy cooking up a scheme to get his robotics program re-instated.

While going rogue and attempting to integrate his A.I. into a beaten down and severely damaged Scout robot, Devon finds himself taken hostage by a group of thugs who want him to program his creation to help them pull off an impossible heist. Forced by gunpoint, Devon installs the program and soon Chappie is born, both literally and metaphorically. Just like a newborn child, Chappie quickly begins to take on the traits of those around him, including the evil ways of his adoptive family played by Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwood (a South African rap group). After learning that his body has a time limit, Chappie sets out to find a way to preserve himself, even if he is forced to go against the wishes of his creator Devon and join the thugs who hold him captive.


Is writer/director Neill Blomkamp the new M. Night Shymalan? Did he make the best movie he has in him right out the gate? Why do all his movies look and feel the same? Why is Hugh Jackman wearing a forest ranger outfit and sporting a really bad mullet? Sigourney Weaver is in this? Wait, why does it feel like the entire corporation that runs the Scout program is run by only three people? Those are but a few of the questions that went running through my mind as I watched Chappie, a film that was doomed to be compared to other films about robotics and the meaning of life the minute the pen hit the paper.

Let's review some of those bullet points as they are quite pertinent. Some may say it is harsh to compare Blomkamp with Shyamalan at this point in his career but it is hard to not feel a certain bit of deja vu with their career trajectories. While Shyamalan was able to coast off his blockbuster hit The Sixth Sense for a longer period of time before becoming box office poison, the supposed downfall of Blomkamp (in the critic's eye mainly thus far) is uncomfortably similar. The fly in that ointment though is that arguably Shyamalan's best film to date was his second feature Unbreakable and for Blomkamp to be heading down that dangerous road of obscurity his films would have to be getting progressively worse, which in the case of Chappie that isn't true.


Chappie is no District 9. It lacks the originality and sly social messaging of that modern day masterpiece. Chappie isn't Elysium either. It lacks the in-your-face political agenda and isn't a carbon copy of District 9. In short, it still isn't as good as District 9 but it isn't as bad as Elysium either. Chappie is not a great film nor will it be remembered as fondly as its many obvious influences. But it does something that most feared wouldn't happen, something far greater than becoming a blockbuster hit or winning over all the critics who had already made up their minds about it the first time they saw the trailer. It proves that Neill Blomkamp is still one heck of a filmmaker whose ideas may be a bit on the derivative side, but whose passion and skill overcome many of his failings.

Chappie is a very decisive film, you will either love it or hate it. Usually that sort of ultimatum drives me crazy because there is almost always an uncertain grey area some people fall into where they could either take it or leave it. But Chappie is so balls to the walls in your face that you are practically forced at gun point to be on board with it right from the beginning or start looking for the nearest exit. One of the key factors that will split people on how they feel about it are the human characters, or more specifically the human thug characters who eventually become Chappie's highly dysfunctional surrogate mommy and daddy.


Until Chappie, I had never heard of Yolandi, Ninja or Die Antwood, but I can assure without a doubt, for better or worse, I will never forget them now either. While Yolandi (Chappie's mommy) borders a bit on the whiney side and can become a bit tiresome after a while, it is her partner in crime Ninja (Chappie's daddy) who is the guy that has the most potential to ruin the entire film for most people. His character is meant to be an A-hole who is selfish, loud, obnoxious, mean, angry and above all else, a legit gangsta (in his own mind anyway). Go ahead, try not to cringe and succumb to laughter as Ninja, in all seriousness, attempts to show Chappie how to properly hold a hand gun. Aside from the fact that the guy is white as rice and carries around a bright yellow assault rifle (Yolandi sports a pink Uzi), there is a bigger problem than all that.

Ninja has no redeeming qualities of any kind. He does everything to make you hate him and absolutely nothing to argue against it. Unlike District 9 and Elysium, two films that also featured a main protagonist who was hopelessly selfish but eventually (at the very last minute) saw the light of day and did find redemption in their final moments. Ninja isn't the only one though as none of the characters in Chappie are ever redeemed and the worse part is that they all needed it. Not even Devon, who aside from Chappie (who we will get to in a second), is probably the most moral person in the film, but once again is hopelessly selfish with his intentions towards Chappie. Heck, some may say he is actually rewarded for his efforts in a slightly twisted way when it is all over.


But then there is Chappie. Much like how he softens the hearts of the criminals around him (yes, Devon is a criminal too in the grand scheme of things), he helps us tolerate their dark souls a little bit. Chappie is an innocent, much like Adam and Eve, ignorant of the world around him and the people who populate it. And also just like Adam and Eve, his youthful untainted exuberance for life is stolen when he is offered the metaphoric apple, here in the form of gaining a new body after learning his current one has only days left before it deactivates.

That is the crux of the film, the idea behind the idea that helps us care and guides us through this ugly future world where humans are of the lowest common denominator. But the character Chappie on paper isn't enough to lure us in, it takes a great actor to turn a lifeless 3D character model into a someone we can connect with. While most everyone is familiar with Andy Serkis' (LoTR, Planet of the Apes) legendary contributions with motion capture technology,  the name Sharlto Copley won't immediately spring to mind in that particular category.


Although Copley has been showing up in films like Maleficent, The A-Team and Europa Report for years now, his most defining and iconic roles have been in Blomkamp's two previous features. As the selfish weasel Wikus in District 9 and the ruthless killer Kruger in Elysium, Copley has been a consistent bright spot in anything he is in and has quickly established himself as one of todays most underrated actors. How ironic it is then that what may quite possibly be his best performance to date, he is never on screen, at least not in the traditional sense. The body language he imbues Chappie with is nothing short of astonishing and easily makes the character the most fascinating thing about the film.

Another positive brought on by Copley's unhinged performance is an unexpected onslaught of comedy. Say what you will about Ninja, his interactions with Chappie when he is trying to turn him into Robotic Gangsta Number One are nothing short of hysterical in the way they poke fun at the hardcore gangsta world. Probably the most successful bit of comedy comes from a montage sequence involving Chappie carjacking people after Ninja convinces him the people driving them have stole them from daddy. The resulting carjackings are almost worth the price of admission alone. But once again, it is Copley's performance that brings it all together.


One other area that begs to be brought up is how Chappie is being sold as an action film, which it clearly is not. Sure, there are some fireworks at the very end of the film (that is startlingly gory and bloody), but marketing it as something it isn't is just a surefire way of making even more people hate on the film, which already has in spades. What action is here is very good though, which shouldn't come as a surprise as that is the one area of Elysium most agreed on despite all its failings. This isn't an action film though, so you would best be served by kicking that expectation to the curb.

Would Chappie work without Copley's performance though? It's tough to say but I am sort of leaning towards a solid no on that front. There are a lot of things to love about the film, such as the slick visuals and A list cast, but how long can a filmmaker rely on those points alone to justify their work? Shortly before Chappie was released Blomkamp spoke openly about Elysium as a failure on his part and it is hard not to imagine when his next film gets released that he might end up saying the same thing about Chappie. It is a difficult one to recommend, but if you have even a slight hesitation of seeing it then perhaps you would be better served waiting for this one to come home before dropping your hard earned cash on it.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Chappie is the emotional center of the film in every way possible as all the human characters represent our need for self gain and security we crave more and more as we get older. Whether or not it was Neil Blomkamps intention to have all the human characters be so unpleasant and force the audience to villainize them is anyones guess, but the film suffers from it. Blomkamp seems to really enjoy populating his films with unlikable people, which is fine as long as we have at least one person to relate to. Chappie is a great character and Sharlto Copley should be praised for the work he did with him, but the film Chappie needed a bit more work in the shop.

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