Chappie is getting ripped to shreds by critics. Few are even calling writer/director Neill Blomkamp the ‘next Shyamalan’. Ouch. I was a big fan of his first film, District 9, but never got around to seeing his second, Elysium. I was told the social commentary that worked so well in District 9 was far too heavy handed in Elysium. Well, that seems to be the same complaint that most critics brought to the table when reviewing his latest film. And I guess they’re right. If you’re looking for intelligent, thoughtful social allegories, you ain’t gonna find em in Chappie. Similarly, if you’re looking for a hard hitting sci-fi movie with bold ideas, don’t bother with Chappie. However, if you’re looking for an expertly made, hilarious, action packed, visually stunning, touching B movie that would have been right at home on a worn video store shelf in the 80’s, then step right up and buy a ticket cuz Chappie is that movie and then some.
I think part of the problem people are having with the flick is that it’s not at all what was advertised in the trailers. The trailers suggest it’s right in line with Blomkamp’s other movies, both of which used a sci-fi set up to reflect on the current state of the world. Here, take a look for yourself if you haven’t seen any yet:
Looks pretty good right? Like a cross between Robocop and Short Circuit, only way more serious. That would have been fine by me but this movie is not at all what I expected. While it is a cross between those two seminal 80’s robot movies, it’s not even half as serious as the trailer suggests. Would you guess from the trailer that there’s a scene where a psychotic gangsta named Ninja teaches Chappie how to look tough, trash talk, and hold a gun sideways? Would you assume that one of the first full sentences Chappie speaks contains the phrase, “dumb fuck mutha”? And would you think that most of the movie involves three thugs trying to trick Chappie into stealing cars and pulling off heists for them? No, neither would I but that’s exactly what happens. It’s absurd, unexpected, preposterous, and ridiculously entertaining. Critics who don’t get that must have a huge stick shoved firmly up their asses.
The movie starts slowly to be sure and I didn’t quite know what to make of it for awhile. Blomkamp employs faux documentary footage and newsreels, the same way he did in District 9, to provide the set up. Crime has reached an all time high in Johannesburg so the government purchases police robots from a corporation called Tetravaal. Crime drops instantly and the creator of the robots, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is hailed as a visionary. His rival is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a bitter weapons designer who wants to use a giant robot he created called MOOSE to patrol the streets because it would be controlled by a human brain and not AI, which he greatly distrusts. But the robot police are successful and have yet to cause any problems so Vincent’s plans are dismissed by the boss (a no-nonsense Sigourney Weaver). Meanwhile, Deon isn’t satisfied with his robots and wants to make one that is entirely sentient. The boss dismisses this idea too, so he steals a damaged robot to perform the experiment himself.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s nearly the exact same set up as Robocop. Johannesburg is Detroit, Tetravaal is OCP, and MOOSE is ED-209. What prevents the film from becoming a complete rehash or rip off is the introduction of three distinctly bizarre characters. They’re a group of gangsters named Ninja, Yolandi, and Yankie. Ninja and Yolandi are played by…um…Ninja and Yolandi from the South African hip hop group Die Antwoord. I guess they couldn’t memorize character names. Anyway, they’re up to their ears in debt and a local crime lord has given them seven days to return a substantial amount of money. They need to pull of a heist to get the cash but there’s so many damn robot cops around. If only they could find a way to turn them off. This idea inspires them to kidnap Deon and they do so just as he’s making his escape.
Deon explains that the robots can’t be turned off but that he is willing to give them this new one to train as long as they let him work with it too. They reluctantly agree and Chappie comes to life, both the movie and the character. Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copely provided the motion capture performance and voice for Chappie and he’s quite a wonder to behold. Deon explains that Chappie will behave like a child and needs to be treated like one. Yolandi listens but Ninja doesn’t and what follows is a battle of wills as one side tries to teach Chappie how to paint and write while the other tries to teach Chappie how to grab his non-existent balls and wear bling like a champ.
I can’t help but wonder if Blomkamp read all the previous reviews that called his social commentary ham-fisted and said, “well fuck it then, I’m gonna make a movie about a robot gansta.” It’s not high art by any means but it sure is fun to watch. And there’s a wicked sense of irreverence to the scenes between Chappie and Ninja, as if Blomkamp was seeing how much he could get away with. One of the main complaints most critics have is his choice to cast the two lead singers of Die Antwoord as the co-leads. They say they’re too unlikeable and not natural actors. I think they’re wrong on both counts. Yolandi is a natural from the get go and Ninja is supposed to be an annoying character for much of the running time. They both play thugs convincingly and the maternal role Yolandi takes on with Chappie is oddly touching.
Another problem critics have is Hugh Jackman as Moore, the one-note, mustache twirling villain. Once again, they’re missing the point. He’s supposed to be a one-note, mustache twirling villain and it’s hilarious. Jackman relishes the role– he clearly hasn’t had this much fun in years–and if you don’t think he and Blomkamp were in on the joke then I don’t know what to tell you. Why else would they choose to dress him in goofy shorts and knee high socks? And how bout his actions during the climax? He finally puts MOOSE to the test and feels the need to announce every single action he makes the robot execute, like a child playing a video game. Wacthing Jackman shout with glee as he commands MOOSE to blow up everything is absolutely hysterical. Even his master plan–which involves sending the city into anarchy so the government will be forced to use his machines–is deliberately cartoony, over-the-top, and nonsensical. And again, it’s supposed to be that way. He’s a B movie villain. Logic and subtlety do not apply to such characters.
It wasn’t until a little past the halfway point that I realized what Blomkamp was up to. He’s not interested in pushing the sci-fi genre in any new directions or using Chappie as some metaphor for the downtrodden or different. Nope. He’s interested in making a crazy action flick not far removed from the batshit 80’s films he grew up with. This keeps happening in action movies and genre flicks. Kingsman was a celebration of the 80’s Bond films, The Guest was an 80’s action movie throwback, Cold in July, Blue Ruin, and Snowpiercer all wore their 80’s influences on their sleeves, and now we have Chappie. It’s the kind of movie you would have seen on a shelf at your local video store, rented on a whim, watched in awe, and then told all your friends, “oh my god, you have to see this crazy shit.”
Blomkamp is a sneaky bastard though because towards the end, he does throw in a few interesting ideas about consciousness and where it comes from. Deon argues with his creation, saying there is no way to transfer its thoughts to another body but Chappie feels differently and explores other options. It may be too little too late for some but it worked for me because it was mostly brought up to push the story forward and not to make a point. Chappie’s battery is dying you see and he wants to find a way to keep on living. I haven’t talked much about what a delightful creation Chappie is. Critics have called him unlikeable and I’m baffled by that. His innocence is refreshing. Yeah, he commits some crimes but that’s only because he’s under the influence of bad people. Besides, the scene where Ninja convinces him to steal a bunch of cars is fall on your face funny. We also feel his righteous rage at the world and the way people behave. His anger isn’t meant as commentary but as a reason for Chappie to change and grow. Weird as they may be, Ninja and Yolandi are his family and he doesn’t want to lose them. This makes the film’s conclusion as touching as it is offbeat.
One of the thing’s that angers me about Chappie’s critical reception is that critics are constantly bemoaning the lack of original films in the theater. Everything is either a sequel, remake, prequel, or based off another property. They’re always whining for original material and when they finally get it, they piss all over it. Granted, their disdain for Jupiter Ascending was justified but their disdain for Chappie? Come on guys, lighten the fuck up. Just because it wasn’t what you expected doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Not everything needs to be an award winner. And you know what? Sometimes, I’d rather watch a movie where a sentient robot gets ‘tough guy lessons’ from a South African rapper than a serious science-fiction allegory about artificial intelligence. There’s a reason people go to the movies as a form of escapism. If you’re one of those people, get you ass to Chappie and let a trash-talking, good natured, rapping robot help you forget all your problems.