What hath District 9 wrought?
For those who’ve been charting Neill Blomkamp’s painful career trajectory, it’s tempting to say that Chappie makes Elysium look like District 9, but the seeds of Chappie‘s badness are evident in District 9. What were secondary issues there–thin characters, logical gaps–here all but overrun the film’s strengths. It’s hard to explain just how incredibly, consistently stupid Chappie is, but I’ll do my best.
There are good things to be found here. On a technical level, it’s just fine. And as absurd as it is, it’s sincere, in a rather pathetic way. But the script–from two Oscar-nominated screenwriters–is so full of stupid characters, stupid situations, and stupid resolutions, that it makes you wonder if Die Antwoord (making their film debut) didn’t get a raw deal.
And given their performances, that’s saying something.
How can you spoil what is already spoilt?
At some point in the future (of course), in Johannesburg (of course), the police department has begun using robot “officers” to assist them. Effectively invulnerable, these robots have helped to bring the crime rate in the city significantly down. The robots are built by the Tetravaal corporation, with the input of programmer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Wilson has developed an artificial-sentience program which he wants to test on a decommissioned robot, but his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses. Inspired by an inspirational cat poster (I’m not joking), Wilson takes the robot and steals the “guardkey” necessary to make changes to the robot’s programming.
Meanwhile, a group of gangsters, led by Ninja (played by Ninja) and Yolandi (played by ¥o-Landi Vi$$er), in debt to ganglord Hippo (Brandon Auret), decide that the police robots must have a remote which switches them off, and wanting such a remote to help them pull off a major heist, decide to kidnap Wilson. He informs them that no such remote exists, but when they find the broken robot and Wilson’s equipment, Ninja decides he will use the robot to help them execute the heist.
Wilson installs the sentience program into the robot, which immediately comes to life and begins to display learning behaviors (much like an infant). Yolandi names it “Chappie”, and despite Wilson’s objections, Ninja and cohort Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) try to train Chappie to be a “gangsta”–which consists of some perfunctory shooting practice (and some detailing) before they hit on the idea to drop him off in a rough neighborhood and let him find his way home.
This results in Chappie taking a beating (and getting set on fire), after which Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) tracks him down. Moore, who works for Tetravaal, has been trying to push his own project–a large, heavily armed law-enforcement robot which is remotely controlled with a neural helmet–without success, and strongly resents Chappie and his fellows. With a couple of aides he captures Chappie–sawing off one of his arms to make him controllable–and retrieves the guardkey.
Chappie is able to escape and make it back to the gang, who are able to fix him. Ninja reveals to Chappie that his time is running out–owing to damage sustained early in the film, his battery cannot be removed, and once his current battery runs out, his current body will die. Feeling betrayed by Wilson, Chappie agrees to help Ninja execute his heist, in return for which he’ll get a new body. Chappie is taught the finer points of carjacking (which must be phrased so that it is not a crime, since he promised Wilson he would commit no crimes), and when Wilson visits, defying Ninja’s antipathy towards him, Chappie rebuffs him.
Moore then sets his plot in motion, uploading a program which remotely shuts down the police-bots, causing Johannesburg to descend into chaos. And the following morning (when the chaos has apparently subsided), Ninja, Chappie, and Yankie carry out their heist, robbing an armored truck. This ends up on the news, and Wilson realizes that Moore was behind the shutdown, and goes in search of Chappie (rather than, you know, saying anything to Bradley), while Moore goes to Bradley and suggests they send in his own robot. Bradley agrees, ordering him to destroy Chappie.
A showdown at the gang’s hideout ensues, with Hippo and his henchmen coming for their money and to steal Chappie, Wilson trying to rescue Chappie (who has figured out a way to upload his consciousness into a new body), and Moore’s neurally-controlled copbot trying to kill them all. Yankie and Yolandi are killed, while Wilson is mortally wounded. Moore’s robot is destroyed, however, and Chappie and Wilson escape, making their way to Tetravaal’s HQ, where Chappie uploads Wilson’s consciousness into a robot body.
Moore arrives and attempts to destroy Chappie, who administers a severe (and possibly fatal) beating to him before his battery–and body–die. Wilson is able to escape, but not before uploading Chappie’s consciousness into a new body. The films as they, using an experimental recording of Yolandi’s consciousness, upload it into a specially designed new body.
Again, it’s the rampant stupidity on display which makes Chappie so hard to swallow. Blomkamp’s tendency to connect the dots in the simplest way possible, regardless of logic, reaches full flower here. Let’s just run down some of the most egregious examples:
- Wilson commits a blatant theft (stealing the guardkey to carry out his experiment on what will be Chappie), a theft that would, if Tetravaal were run by people with any common sense, would be detected immediately–and really, the guardkey should’ve been much better protected than it was–and would have resulted in his immediate, humiliating termination.
- And Bradley only rejects his desire to install an artificial-intelligence program in the robots because he makes an absurd pitch suggesting that his program would allow the robots to write poetry–Bradley shoots this down, not considering the law-enforcement potential of A.I., and it never occurs to him to mention it, because…he’s a fucking moron and we wouldn’t have a plot otherwise.
- Ninja and Yolandi decide that a remote must exist for the police robots because “all machines have a remote”. Granted, they’re not supposed to be terribly sharp–how they rose so high in the Johannesburg underworld is a mystery–but…really? They don’t do the slightest bit of research, they just kidnap an employee of a powerful weapons firm and somehow get away with it.
- Ninja, in this film, is ridiculously thick-headed. He threatens Wilson’s life at the slightest provocation, trying to manipulate an untested machine he has not the slightest understanding of into a tool of crime. And when Chappie’s enforced odyssey across the city leads to his near-destruction, Ninja says he had no idea such a thing would happen. You know, because dropping off a police robot, unarmed, in a crime-ridden neighborhood could not possibly lead to any trouble.
- Moore is the most absurdly transparent villain I’ve seen in ages. It’s hard enough to believe that his sabotaging of the policebots would somehow go unnoticed, but far, far harder to believe that, when he proposes to Bradley that they finally use his robot to bring Chappie down, she immediately agrees, not considering how awfully convenient it is that the policebots mysteriously shut down, leaving Moore’s machine as the only option. But she tells him to “burn [Chappie] to ash!” a moment later, and if you think metal can be burnt to ash, you might be a Neill Blomkamp character.
- But what really drives me up the fucking wall is the scene where Moore, desperate to find the guardkey, actually PULLS A GUN ON WILSON IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OFFICE, and, when everyone notices, he plays it off as a joke and says the office needs to “lighten up”. AND NO ONE SAYS A MOTHERFUCKING THING!!!!!!!!
- Wilson, playing his allotted part in the idiocy parade, on realizing that Moore is behind the policebots’ sudden failure, doesn’t go to his boss–he goes to find and protect Chappie, allowing Moore to carry out the next part of his plan, resulting in nothing more serious than he and Yolandi being mortally wounded (yes, their consciousnesses are preserved, but he has a solid half-hour in real-life time of having a massive bullet wound in his side).
- At the end, Chappie uploads Yolandi’s consciousness into a new, specially designed body (with a face resembling hers) which has been created in the Tetravaal factories…and somehow no one has noticed this. Somehow.
There’s more, but those are the most upsetting examples of Blomkamp’s sloppiness. One would have hoped that having Terri Tatchell, his co-writer on District 9, back on board (she didn’t work on Elysium), would have resulted in a sharper product, but one would also have hoped that Elysium, which Blomkamp has himself acknowledged the failings of, was a lapse on his part. And look what we ended up with.
As embarrassing as the script is, the film is technically hard to fault. Yes, the Chappie design is hampered a bit by the silly “ears”, and the film’s aesthetic is not all that original, but the action sequences are generally quite satisfying–after the brutal Col. Venter was dispatched at a distance in District 9, seeing Chappie beat the shit out of Moore–and, after having done so, forgiving him–at least brings some catharsis at the climax of this absurd adventure. The visual effects and sound design are as good as you could expect from a major studio film–Sharlto Copley performed Chappie’s actions on-set, but the effects which insert Chappie into the action are basically seamless (if there were issues, I was probably too numbed by the film’s faults to notice them).
The actors are a mixed bag, and the quality of the material makes it difficult to say just how much they should be blamed. I suppose I should mention Die Antwoord first, since the baffling fact of their casting was one of the primary selling points for me. I’ll give them this: when they’re just being themselves, they’re not too bad; Yolandi is quite likable, and her rapport with Copley/Chappie is about as close as the film comes to being touching (it doesn’t make the scene where she wears a Chappie T-shirt–which appears to be professionally printed–any less surreal). Ninja has more of an uphill battle, since his character is more aggressively obnoxious (and he was apparently so obnoxious on the set that his scenes were cut back just so Blomkamp wouldn’t have to be around him; he has repudiated the claims), but he has his moments. When they’re called upon to act, however, their lack of experience shows, and while I wouldn’t necessarily nominate them for Razzies–I think they probably gave it their all–they should probably stick to music.
Dev Patel’s post-Slumdog Millionaire career has been erratic; The Last Airbender is The Last Airbender, and while I’ve never seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (or its impending sequel), I’ve seen the trailers ad nauseam and remain little charmed. As Wilson, he’s earnest, but the character is so cloying and so tiresomely ineffectual (at one point, forced to leave by Ninja, he calls out “PHILISTINE!”) that his efforts are for naught. Jackman doesn’t put much into his work here except a kind of smug villainy, though at times it seemed as if he might have been playing some of the material deliberately straight to bring out the absurd humor of the situations (like when he spies on Chappie painting). Weaver has little screentime, and so does not embarrass herself as fully as Jodie Foster did in Elysium (oh, that accent), but she likewise cannot do much with the material.
Copley, however, was excellent in District 9 and hammily entertaining in Elysium, and he invests Chappie with the right kind of manic energy and childlike pathos; he doesn’t make the material work, necessarily, but he allows us to believe in Chappie–the only character we really can believe in. Chappie’s sufferings are the only part of the film that achieve anything like the emotional impact Blomkamp sought–otherwise, it left me quite cold. And his guilelessness allows for the film’s rare moments of effective humor.
I should note that Hans Zimmer’s electronic score is quite solid. It’s not on a par with his work on Interstellar, but it’s easily one of the best parts of the film.
Except when it upset me for being so ridiculous. If the Razzies notice Chappie at all, it ought to be for Worst Screenplay, since Chappie is one of the worst-written studio films I’ve seen in a long time. Sometimes narrative corner-cutting makes the experience smoother. Here, however, it backfires horribly, leaving us with a film that barely avoids *½ by virtue of its fleeting strengths.
Seriously, what the fuck happened?