Film Review: Chappie

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Urban Pacification 

It’s a pity that Chappie plays like a sci-fi mix tape. It’s highly derivative, not just of Neil Blomkamp’s own District 9, that dropped a more fortunate citizen of Johannesburg into the ghetto then contrived to transform them into the very thing they’d once subordinated, but also old genre mainstays like Robocop and Short Circuit. All of which means that invidious comparisons will be made and Blomkamp’s film, toying with a few meaty ideas, will be dismissed as a tribute act.

Not that the director does much to bring them to the fore, you understand. Chappie’s a scrappy affair, its heart and plot mechanics fused together like the poor robot’s battery and chassis. Somewhere, in the interstice between the violent histrionics and child-like droid looking to bond with his human captors/family, a tonal contrast that jars, is a film about humanity becoming more machine-like, both in its embracing of technological adds-ons and thinking, and the implications of this for social inequality; techno-elites and those without moving further apart. In a criminal toilet like South Africa’s capital, the heart of a highly stratified society, it’s a contrast readymade, but the potential for tech to both pry apart or ultimate level society (by turning us all into drones no longer dependent on old resources) is lost in the scramble to tell the story, drowned out by noise.

As we’ve come to expect from Blomkamp, it’s a stylish and assured movie from a technical point of view, that benefits from a thumping Hans Zimmer electronic score and colourful performances, not least from Die Antwoord rapper, Ninja, but at its heart there’s a void – one that threatens the entire enterprise, and that’s Chappie himself: one of the most irritating leads in recent memory.

It was clearly Blomkamp’s hope that Chappie would be an endearing character whose child-like naivety and curiosity would act as a vivid contrast to the inhumanity and self-interest all around him. Unfortunately the decision to keep him infantile, his cognitive development curiously stalling at teen level, following a promising start in which he learnt basic language skills in two minutes (it takes a human baby 3 months), turns him into a baby-talk spouting irritant, compounded by the embarrassing ghetto speak he inherits from his gangster rolemodels.

Having spent most of the movie bumbling, idiotic and talking like a five year old, reminding us of a mechanised Jar Jar Binks (the character design underlines the point with his awkward walk and rabbit ears, making us wonder if Blomkamp isn’t a closet Phantom Menace fan), we’re then asked to believe he’d discover the secret of transferring human consciousness into a robot body. In other words, Chappie graduates from guns, theft and lofty spiritual talk to the single greatest innovation in the history of computer science, and this with just minimal exposure to Dev Patel’s boy genius (unfortunate casting as it recalls Fisher Stevens’ turn in the aforementioned ‘80’s robot develops consciousness blockbuster).

To say Chappie damages Chappie is not underselling it. He’s one dislikable character amongst many, but the only one we’re asked to care about and root for unconditionally. As the film progresses, admittedly at pace, later scenes involving the emotionally stunted robot-child tip into mawkishness, some playing like parodies of bad sci-fi movies. We’re left in the curious position of enjoying the film’s suitably grimy, industrial aesthetic and its kinetic setpieces, while feeling next to nothing for the humans that furnish the dystopia. If Blomkamp’s going to helm a successful Alien sequel, he’s going to have to get a firm grip on plot and characterisation, so complimenting, rather than working against, his demonstrable technical ability.

Directed by: Neil Blomkamp

Country: US/Mexico

Year: 2015

Running Time: 120 mins

Certificate: 15 for Phantom Menace invocation, pick up shots with bad wigs, and an Ed209 called "The Moose".

5 Responses

  1. Fernando Campos says:

    You are comparing Chappie with Jar Jar Binks?

    First of all, for you is Mister Chappie and then you can talk about the movie.

    If Chappie is like Jar Jar Binks, I’m supposing that your favorite director is Michael Bay and you like BIG ROBOTS and explosions. But the size doesn’t matters. Do you have fantasies with Optimus Prime? Oh god, that strong voice!

    Last year, your favorite movie (Transformers Age of Extintion) had better robots than Chappie or you like movies with sensual teens and robots, on an orgy of fire, legs and metal?

    Now I’m ok. I said what was in my heart. Friends as allwats.

    I’m waiting to read your positive review of 50 Shades of Grey – is a masterpiece for you, isn’t it?


    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Fernando, particularly as English isn’t your first or even your second language.

      I’m struggling to see the connection between the observation that Chappie and Jar Jar share traits (and a body shape) and the homosexual fetishising of Optimum Prime, or indeed a predatory paedophilic instinct, so it pains me that you’ve stumbled onto the truth on both counts.

      It’s as if you didn’t think it through or reached for the first insults that came into your head. If you like Chappie the robot then I’m happy for you. I didn’t but I wasn’t using the fact I didn’t as a means to attack you by proxy, though now we know each other I’ll try. Please provide me with a list of movies you’re looking forward to and I’ll go out of my way to write negative reviews of them and include phrases like, “anyone who enjoyed this film is obviously a fan of tarmacing and watersports”.

      On a medical note, get your heart checked out. It’s clogged up with pigeon English.

      • Hey, Ed, seems to me that you pride yourself on being a pedant; content to criticize not only a great work of modern science fiction but also the efforts of someone who clearly doesn’t speak English as a first language.

        P.s. you have terrible taste in movies.

        • Ed Whitfield says:

          Hey Brandon. Yes, it must seem to you as if I was a right bastard for rounding on poor Fernando, but it’s my belief that if you’re going to vomit up crude insults, with homosexuality and sexual deviance as your weapons, you should be able to string a sentence together. If you can’t, should you attempt it really? I’d say no.

          As for my taste in movies and the interesting assertion that Chappie is a great work of science fiction, your unsupported opinion is not enough. I mean, you can say it, as you have, and maybe you think it’s enough that you think it and can say it, so it must be true, but it’s not.

          I think what you meant to say is that I’ve criticized a movie you like, and who knows, maybe a few others you enjoyed too. You, like Fernando, seem to have taken that to heart. Saying a movie you like is flawed (which isn’t the same as pedantry, I’m sorry to tell you) must feel like someone saying your judgement is flawed, ergo you’re flawed. Well, I didn’t have you mind when I wrote the review and I don’t now. This is a review of a movie and if you’ve got a better argument you should make it, not waste time making nebulous statements about my taste (which in contrast to your own comments, is always supported by an argument). If you can’t make that case then perhaps you shouldn’t say anything at all.

          Happy viewing.

  2. I have to concur with your assessment of Chappie as a mechanized Jar Jar Binks. In fact, I enjoyed a hearty laugh as all my buried Phantom Menace memories came flooding back to my mind. I think you nailed it.