I’m consciousness, I’m alive, I’m Chappie. That’s the first piece of dialogue I heard when I saw the trailer for South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp’s, latest sci-fi thriller “Chappie”. Prior to its release, all I saw of this were a few snippets which got me hooked and didn’t give a lot away about the story either. Chappie is the third full length feature from Blomkamp, whose debut feature “District 9”, took the world by storm back in 2009. It told an entertaining futuristic story, while tackling a serious event in history, in Apartheid. Neill backed up his brilliant work with 2013’s underrated “Elysium”, starring Matt Damon. It was my favorite of his films. He and his team crafted one amazing world with two earths. Not only was it visually spectacular, he again covered aspects like environmental awareness and poverty, and succeeded in telling yet another original story. This year it’s Chappie, Neill’s third venture into the world of robots/droids. In a near future where crime is being policed by a mechanically controlled force, one particular droid is stolen and given new programming by designer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Chappie becomes the first robot with the ability to feel and think for himself. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo and Sigourney Weaver with Sharlto Copley as the voice of Chappie.
I really respect that Neil chooses to keep making films in South Africa. I can’t think of any recent films that have come out of the country, other than Clint Eastwood’s biopic “Invictus”. I think without that Hollywood polish, it gives this type of film, and the genre a much more realistic look and feel. The camera work and audio in this is every bit as well conceived as Neill’s previous work. I’ll talk about the screenplay a little bit more later, but audiences should know before going in, this is a very odd blend of genres. Like it or not, you can’t help but respect it and it’s originality. Personally, I think it’s a great blend of obscure, somewhat black comedy, along with drama and a sub-plot surrounding a fictional character. Thematically it’s very different to both District 9 and Elysium, and I think that’s a great thing. Neill keeps finding another layer of the onion to peel back. A lot of the reviews and feelings on Chappie have been mixed, I suppose that’s natural for just about any film though. Some are saying this is void of direction or lacks a clear narrative, or just that the tone is to odd for words. Then you have people disregarding it altogether, simply because it’s Neill’s third film in the genre and he continues opting to shoot these films in South Africa. Not only that, but with key characters generally being played by local talent (or not so talented, as some are saying). Either way, I don’t think those are valid reasons to critique something poorly, so let’s actually talk about the film and it’s merits before jumping to conclusions.
First off, It’s another great concept for a sci-fi film. I think what separates Neil’s body of work from other directors in the genre, is that each of his films have a distinct feel and look about them. He co-wrote this script with Terry Tatchell (who also co-wrote on District 9), and clearly these two work well together. The trailer and setup for the introduction to Chappie makes it seem like this could miss the mark when it comes to the drama, but that’s definitely not the case. Like all of Neill’s work, it’s the human element that the viewer should be able to connect with. I disagree with the people who are saying he should keep it on the straight and narrow, generic for lack of a better word. These people are the same movie-goers supporting the never-ending superhero films that Marvel keep dishing up, just to break even in order to do it all over again. They wouldn’t know good drama if it was right in front of them, as is the case here. Chappie treads on some solid and familiar ground, covering simple but effective themes, like upbringing and parenting as well as peer pressure and identity, along with some subtle and not so subtle religious undertones. God and creationism are touched on, discussions surrounding good or bad choices, and knowing the difference between right and wrong etc. When Chappie comes to life he has the mind of a small child, but quickly grows into a “teenager” or young adult, which is of course where most of us either consciously or subconsciously choose a path for ourselves. A big part of that will be due to our circumstances and surroundings in life.
One of the shining moments occurs in a scene where Chappie realizes he doesn’t have long to live, coming to the realization he was more or less created just to die. He makes the point, Why would you create me just to kill me before I’ve even had the chance to live my life?. I think it’s safe to say that Neill is probably an atheist, and without rubbing it in the viewers face he takes a bit of a dig. All this dialogue is handled expertly by Copley (dead ringer for actor Leland Orser). Sharlto has been the vocal point of each of Neill’s films, and continues to impress and grow as an actor. Furthermore, the rest of the cast round things out nicely. Patel has a fair bit of experience and has done a few solid Drama films now, I was surprised at how well he fit into this film. Sci-fi isn’t something you would expect to see him in, so kudos to the casting heads for giving him that opportunity. Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore, who works at the same compound as Deon. He is creating his own robot enforcer, which is the modern version of a mech-warrior, something we saw glimpses of in the final act of District 9. It’s relatively new territory for Jackman to play such an immoral character. Even in “The Prestige”, he had an urgency about him that you could sort of relate too, a certain jealous streak. Here, he’s just an ass (haha) and giving the over the top Aussie jargon makes him a bigger ass. I think he does a solid job but he’s the good guy in everything for a reason, everyone loves Hugh. Sadly, this isn’t the DiCaprio and “Django Unchained” situation, and I think the part of Vincent could have been given to somebody else. Michelle Bradley (played by Weaver), is head of the aforementioned corporation responsible for building the droids. She’s basically the female version of William Fitchner’s character from Elysium. I think she was underused and the role probably could have been played by anyone. I will leave former husband and wife/ South African rap artists, Ninja and Yolandi for a paragraph below.
When it comes to the action, Chappie is somewhat thin but only because it prioritizes drama over gun-play, and for this story it works. Other than the general threat of day-to-day violence during criminal activity, it mostly comes to blows in the final act of the film. A big shootout takes place at Ninja and Yolandi’s living quarters. When I say living quarters, I mean a big abandoned, gutted concrete block with huge rafters and beams etc etc (haha). It’s difficult at times to relate to anyone but Chappie, but I think that’s kind of the point. On one side, you have this trio of petty criminals who are trying to make a big score, in order to pay off a head-honcho whom they owe a sizable sum of money too. The other is an alpha male showdown between Deon, the young man trying to do good with the technology, and Vincent whose trying to use it for his own control and power.
I already spoke a bit about Hugh Jackman and the role he plays. Like I said, I think he does a solid job but the choice to give him an overly annoying, true blue Aussie accent hurts the quality of the performance. Maybe it’s just because I’m Australian or something, but anytime I hear that accent I cringe. Unless I’m hearing it as a parody in a Horror/Comedy e.g Mick Taylor (Wolf Creek), it squashes any of that threatening behavior. I think the consensus from most people is that Ninja and Yolandi’s performances hurt the film, and I admit that’s true to a degree. Keep in mind, this duo are musicians and not actors, I guess some people are saying that’s the point maybe they should stick to what they know. After having seen the film, I read that Neill cast them because he was a fan of their music. Now that the film has been released, a lot of comments have been made about what a nightmare the two were to work with. Getting crew members to travel long distances to get them special vegetarian meals, not sitting down with the rest of the cast and crew who all ate together. As well as bigger things, like Ninja trying to get Dev Patel stoned, or being crude and hitting on all the women on set. I don’t know how much of this is actually true, but Neill has since said it was a tough lesson to learn and that he will never work with them again.
I’m not sure if those issues found a way to the surface during the filming. I didn’t have a problem with them, the accents grated on me and got irritating after some lengthy scenes, but given that they aren’t trained actors I thought they were passable. The believability during some of the more Emotional moments wasn’t there, I won’t deny that. There are other issues with certain plot points and predictability as well. Some of the moments and revelations in Neill’s past films were far more effective in that sense. Because a lot of the characters are difficult to care about, it negates the sincerity in those heavy scenes. The main plot points were surrounding the micro-chip that Chappie needed to survive, and to maintain who he really was. We are more or less told how important this chip is, yet on multiple occasions it doesn’t seem high on Deon’s priority list to retrieve it. At least twice, he questions whether Vincent might have had it, because he needs to get the all clear from Bradley to use his enforcer and shut down Deon’s drones. He never actually goes looking for it, otherwise he would have been able to find it in Vincent’s computer and just remove it. Also quite dumb of Jackman’s character to leave it in his computer in the first place, something that important would always be the first thing on your mind. Without spoiling the end of the film, things do go a little pair shaped there too. Transference of consciousness and mind, body and soul or however you choose to phrase it, seems like a far-fetched and silly notion. The way that last 15 minutes played out was a little hokey, at least too me.
Because of its apparent absurd nature, people are writing Chappie off. The masses are missing the point of this film, it’s a story about individuality and the essence of what it is to be a life-form, or more accurately a human. Sure, it’s masquerading as a sci-fi/action flick but that’s not the heart of the film, and maybe that’s what people hoped for and didn’t get and that’s where the negativity is coming from. If that’s the case go and watch Captain America, or basically anything Marvel, where the drama is laughable. Chappie is very funny in places but seriously heavy in others. It’s technically well made, well acted and for the most part maintains a steady an entertaining pace. If not for some convenient or lazy plot points, and a couple of South African secondaries, this would be as brilliant as Blomkamp’s two previous films. Neill is going to be directing the Alien reboot and I couldn’t think of a better man for the job, he is a master of the genre. If you find yourself caring about Chappie himself, at any point during these two hours the movie has done what it set out to do.
My rating for “Chappie” is 7/10