The Black Sheep
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Chappie is the latest effort from director Neill Blomkamp, who arrived on the scene with the incredible sci-fi allegory of apartheid in District 9 that immediately became defined as one of the greatest films of the modern age. His follow-up Elysium was a misfire of storytelling despite some fantastic visuals and concepts and even Blomkamp himself agreed with that sentiment. Chappie as it is hits much closer to Elysium than District 9 and it’s problematic for much of its running time. More than anything else, perhaps, Chappie comes across as being exceedingly bizarre, a slightly above average grab-bag of various narrative elements that were all pushed together and then shot on a fifty million dollar budget before a script edit or two. The plot of Chappie feels like the Blomkamp formula but with a robot at its center instead of a speciestic Sharlto Copley or a part-robot Matt Damon. In a crime-ridden Johannesburg, a company headed by the astonishingly poorly used Sigourney Weaver creates prototypes designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel, also starring in the better The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) that function basically as a robotic police force. They’re so effective that the company’s profits are going through the roof and everything is going so swimmingly well that it’s a foregone conclusion that something is going to go well. Then gangsters grab ahold of a robot that becomes known as Chappie.
Chappie himself is a result of a program being developed by Deon that would create sentient robots, a program that his superior naturally looks at with the most skeptical expression in history. There’s little thought that Deon puts into the program in terms of what the potential consequences could be as he only can obsess with the potential transcendence of what he’s trying to create. That aspect of the narrative is one of the film’s absolute highlights and when Deon has to confront his own folly in not thinking about the circle of life and how it would apply if his experiment was indeed successful, the film shines. That transcendence doesn’t happen very often, however. But before we get to the bad, let’s cover the title character first. The character of Chappie the robot is one of the most magnificently realized on screen in recent memory and Sharlto Copley can add this incredibly impressive performance to his repertoire. The visual effects are astounding on a budget that size and not for a single second does Chappie feel like an artificial creation in any fashion. His entire being is brought fantastically to life in a breathtaking motion capture performance from Copley, who brings real emotional depth to an instant classic of a character. You feel the emotions not just being expressed but actually being developed and that the film truly gets you to feel deeply for Chappie is an incredible achievement.
However, the emotional depth that Chappie manages to display doesn’t transcend to any of the human characters beside Deon. It’s not as if the South African duo Die Antword aren’t good and certainly few will argue that Weaver and Hugh Jackman aren’t phenomenal actors. The writing just isn’t there to take these characters and turn them into multi-dimensional beings whose complex conflicts would be relatable in any fashion. Jackman’s Vincent at the onset displays a great deal of worry over the idea of sentient robots that cannot be effectively controlled by humans. It’s a valid discussion to have within that context but quickly the movie just abandons that debate and instead turns Vincent into a caricature who enjoys ripping off the heads of gangsters with his giant robot (that is not an exaggeration) while wearing khaki shorts that make him look like an overgrown Boy Scout. Weaver exists in the context of this film to remind us that she runs a company that wants to make money and not lose market value. Astonishing. Ninja, Yolandi, and America are each given single notes to display and then the script suddenly tries to make them into heroes and while the end is effective, the massive chunk in the middle that is missing hurts the film quite a bit as you realize that you only care because Chappie and Deon are in the mix. As if the lack of characterization there wasn’t enough of a bother to begin with, Blomkamp throws in some random gangster conflict that quite easily drags the entire film down with it.
The concept of robots and consciousness isn’t original to Chappie and one could argue that Star Trek and Star Wars have done a better job of addressing it. But the struggles Chappie faces with trying to stay alive because he can feel his own burgeoning consciousness are so powerfully done that it makes the rest of the film look that much weaker in comparison, even though at times the script veers far too close to Frankenstein for comfort. Perhaps the best scene in the entire film is when a confused Chappie is brutally set upon by teenagers, who beat him at his joints before setting him on fire. Smoking, he limps across a set of abandoned train tracks before sitting on a rock, gazing out into the stormy Johannesburg sky and wondering why the real world was so cruel to someone like him, a black sheep that didn’t fit in. Only a small black dog comes near him to share some comfort. It’s a tragic sequence imbued with an underlying catharsis that the majority of the film lacks. Blomkamp’s direction is amazing in that sequence and is otherwise assured for the most part. But his reliance on shaky cam in certain shots and the absolutely botched heist scene with random cuts marks this as his weakest direction yet. Chappie is a weak film salvaged by a third act that hits all the emotional beats even though it unfortunately trades some of its intelligence for action sequences and PS4 product placement. Chappie deserves a better body.
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Produced by: Simon Kinberg
Screenplay by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Based On: Tetra Vaal by Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo. Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch
Editing: Julian Clarke
Production Company: Media Rights Capital
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Dates: March 4, 2015 (New York premiere), March 6, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: CBS Local Las Vegas