Tuesday, March 17, 2015

CHAPPiE - Going Into Reruns

Neill Blomkamp's career is starting to fall on a very thin line between "unique personal style" and "just making the same stupid movie over and over again".  When his first film, the South African apartheid metaphor hiding within an alien SciFi film, "District 9" came out, his work was fresh and new.  His love of grungy shantytown backgrounds and practical-looking mechanic designs was fascinating.  Then he made the far dumber "Elysium"*, also about dirty brown slums and greasy machinery melees.  Blomkamp is now breaking exciting new ground with "CHAPPiE", a movie about a stark robotic creature fighting angry South Africans in a filthy favela.  I'm noticing a pattern here, I think.

But am I being fair right now by implying that Blomkamp can only make one kind of film?  Certainly I could not ask David Cronenberg to stop making movies fetishizing the corruption of the flesh and the thin line between life and death.  So if Blomkamp really cannot do anything more than rusting heavy metal action in dusty ruins, recreating the final fight scene from "District 9" three times now, does he get an excuse?  If his imagination cannot conjure up a better villain than a redneck with a serious temper problem, can I fault him for that?  Well, maybe I can.  Other directors would try branching out to new styles, to new genres, and new stories.  It doesn't look like Blomkamp is going to be leaving the Townships or greasy technopunk any time soon.

Maybe I would be more forgiving if Blomkamp were more consistent.  "CHAPPiE" is a difficult movie to actually rate as a whole.  It is hard to go wrong with a movie about a cute robot with the mind of a child learning about the world around him and overcoming angry soldiers with bad mullets.  Yet Blomkamp balances out that good with bland characters regurgitated from his previous films.  Not one human in this story is particularly likable.  Then there is a surprisingly bloated and weirdly complicated plot for what should be a straightforward film.  "CHAPPiE" is easily Blomkamp's messiest film in terms of construction, a tragically ironic flaw for a creator so in love with engineering.

As has been joked many times in the past by every person with snark and a decent knowledge of film history, "CHAPPiE" is the unofficial remake of the 1980s family film, "Short Circuit".  In both movies a humanoid robot gains sentience, finds human companions, and must escape evil military types who fear what his intelligence might mean.  But where Blomkamp shakes things up is by adding a quite a lot of "RoboCop" into the stew**.  Those films were from the 80s, when movies were allowed to be silly and comedic.  "CHAPPiE" is not allowed to be silly.  In the 21st century movies instead have explosions, ugly overdone plotting, and vague attempts at social implications that the story has no real interest in.

Thug tech.
"CHAPPiE" takes place in literally Next Sunday A.D. in South Africa, where a new line of robotic police officers has finally secured the peace in Johannesburg.  Deon (Dev Patel in a mostly thankless role) works for Tetravaal the manufacturers of the police bots.  On his off time he manages to invent Artificial Intelligence.  For reasons, his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver in a truly thankless role) wants nothing to do with it, leaving Patel's character free to make billions with his invention at any other software company anywhere in the world.  Instead of doing that Patel installs the AI into a decommissioned police bot, who is born as Chappie (voiced by Blompkamp's favorite actor, Sharlto Copley), a child-like friendly robot, happy to be a part of our world.

Things get complicated when Deon is kidnapped by a small team of gangsters who want to use Chappie as their own personal bodyguard.  Those supposedly-lovable thugs would be the music couple Die Antwoord as themselves (more on this in a minute).  Chappie now is raised as a little baby gangster.  He is endlessly excited to ride in cars, to steal cars, and loves to wipe his face for no particular reason.  But can Chappie's own peaceful innocence survive in a world filled with criminals who would manipulate him?  Also are these criminals supposed to be good or bad?  Because the movie never seemed to decide.

Add another wrinkle when Hugh Jackman and Hugh Jackman's terrible mullet play Vincent, a rival engineer at Tetravaal, who is jealous of Deon's success.  He has his own robot, the far less successful and unloved MOOSE, which is... the ED-209 from "RoboCop".  I am not even exaggerating or being cute here, it is the ED-209.  Vincent's machine is ignored by Transvaal's client, the municipal police, who for obvious reasons do not need an Imperial Walker with rocket jets.  Mullet Wolverine could sell the MOOSE to any military anywhere, but instead of doing that indulges in a complicated wicked scheme to shut down his competition.  And he wants Chappie dead for reasons.

"CHAPPiE" borrows a great deal from the South African 'Zef' culture.  'Zef'' is - as best as an American square can describe it - a kind of gangsta White trash affectation with lots of terrible gaudy colors and a general refusal to wear a shirt.  For some reason it also involves drawing lots of cartoon penises on your walls.  Zef isn't the kind of subculture to make me throw away my accent and shirt to live in South African squalor, but at least it adds some variety to Blomkamp's artistic stagnation.  You're a scumbag but an ironic scumbag... or something.  There is also a great deal of racial tension thrown into Zef-ness as well (because this is South Africa, there is racial tension in the breakfast cereals).

Chappie and his Mom (the metal emoticon-faced man is the more believable of the two)
The music group Die Antwoord are modern stars of this subculture, offering a kind of safe hipster version of the scene.  They are a bit of punk, a bit of hip hop, a bit of about every counter culture musical style of the last fifty years.  Blomkamp casts them as themselves as Chappie's so-called parents:  Yolandi as Yolandi, Ninja as Ninja.  Unfortunately for Blomkamp and more unfortunately for me, Die Antwoord are not actors, and it shows.

Yolandi does a half decent job as Chappie's mother.  It isn't going to win any awards, but her style is strange enough and her performance is genuine enough to at least be sympathetic.  Ninja, on the other hand, is a full-on prick in this movie.  Most of his scenes have him acting atrociously, from merely loud and stupid to downright abusive.  If you're nominally a heroic character you should have no problem being more likable than big bad bully Hugh Jackman, yet Ninja manages to be the most repulsive character in the whole movie.

But enough about humans, you're watching "CHAPPiE" for Chappie.  Blomkamp could hardly be bothered to focus on developing the human characters - and why should he?  Humans are sticky and gross and often smell awful.  Adorable robots are the true energy of this movie.  Sharlto Copley's voice is high-pitched and excited, giving a childlike wonder to every act.  Referring to himself in the third person, Chappie is endlessly encouragable and optimistic, even when suffering the terrible truths of the world around him.  He is a charming little fellow, but also destined to tragedy thanks to the brutal humans around him.  Imagine the most brutal scenes of "Short Circuit 2" ramped considerably and you have the kind of punishment poor little Chappie.

As a special effect Chappie is remarkable.  He is entirely computer-generated, but interacts so naturally with the human co-stars and his environment that you never doubt his reality.  His design is a good mixture between rough masculine machinery that Blomkamp is such a fan of and cartoony humanizing details.  When as a basic RoboCop, the Chappie machine is an efficient weapon.  Then as Chappie the movement loosen up, the little handles on the face become a mouth and eyebrows, and he gains two little display 'eyes'.  What are tracking sensors on the police droids are to Chappie bunny ears.  A more marketable director would be selling Chappie toys to children.  Blomkamp instead has him do this:

Metal Gear?
That is just a minute after a character gets ripped in half.  I imagine many children will be upset by that.  "Short Circuit 2" this isn't.

Maybe my love of "WALL-E" has hard-wired me into being a sucker for movies about robots, but I'm going to give "CHAPPiE" a recommendation.  You can easily break this film down into pieces and point out it is all a regurgitation of previous Blomkamp productions minus any interest at all this time in social commentary.  The script has some many holes in it you would think the ED-209 had shot it up at a board meeting.  The ending is poorly paced as well, lurching huge twists with no real time for the audience or the characters to digest their meaning.  Blomkamp has created an inexcusable mess here.  He will not be able to get away with that for very long.

However, Chappie himself is what makes the movie work.  He is so easily relatable and lovable than it is hard to not immediately fall for him.  If he's getting attacked you feel for him.  If he's having fun, you are having fun as well.  There really is not an audience member alive who cannot be moved along by his story, from young and old.  From the beginning of this review I said you really cannot go wrong with a cute robot movie.  Sure do everything you can to go wrong, but the robots will win out in the end.

* In two years not one movie has managed to annoy me as much as "Elysium" did.  Was not the worst movie I've reviewed on this blog, but it was the one that made me angriest.  That isn't really a review that I wrote about it either, that was more a furious declaration of war.

** Goes without saying that this is a better "RoboCop" movie than last year's "RemakeCop".

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