Mar 22, 2015

Chappie [15]

Dir: Neill Blomkamp
When I saw it at the cinema, I liked Neill Blomkamp's acclaimed début District 9 well enough, but found that it degenerated, following a strong opening, into something less engaging and intelligent than it had begun as.  Chappie has some of the same problems and adds some new ones for good measure.

The premise has South Africa's Police force being augmented, and potentially taken over, by artificially intelligent robots built by Deon (Dev Patel).  However, when he believes that he has cracked true, human like, learning AI he is denied permission to test it.  He steals a damaged body to test the programme, but both he and it are kidnapped by criminals (Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, of rap rave act Die Antwoord) who want to use 'Chappie' (a motion captured Sharlto Copley) to help them pull off a heist.  Meanwhile, a rival at Deon's company (Hugh Jackman) sees an opportunity to get his own stalled, human controlled, policing robot off the ground.

Perhaps the biggest of the many problems with Chappie is that it appears Blomkamp has built it out of spare parts.  The echoes of other films are pronounced throughout.  They are evident not just in the story (the coming of age element feels like an R Rated Short Circuit, the transference of conciousness a lift from Ghost in the Shell) but in the design (Jackman's robot 'The Moose' is a direct lift of ED 209) and in the images (the final shot rips off both Ghost in the Shell and Bjork's iconic All Is Full Of Love video).  

The trouble is that Blomkamp never knits these elements together with the sort of confidence and coherence that would allow them to create something new.  The crime story with Die Antwoord feels separate from the corporate rivalry between Jackman and Patel.  The discussion of conciousness feels teleported in from another, smarter movie, but is swiftly shunted aside as a meaningful idea, only to come into play when it's needed as a plot device.  It all adds up to make the film feel more like a collection of influences than anything with ideas of its own.

If this were the only issue, then Chappie might get away with its patchwork feel, but that's far from the case.  Before seeing this film I decided to try and discover Die Antwoord, who I hadn't heard before.  They're annoying.  It was a surprise to see how much of the film they are in.  Ninja and Yo-Landi both have major roles, and all told they're probably in about 65% of the film.  They're also annoying here.  It's tough to decide what's more grating; Ninja's faux-gangsta swagger and collection of hilariously shit tattoos or Visser's nine year old girl on helium voice.  Outside of these issues is the plain fact that neither of them can act to save their lives.  Ninja is the wooden spoon winner, but Visser isn't far behind him.  

This undermines even the few more entertaining moments of the heist storyline, as when Ninja convinces the childlike Chappie to steal cars for him on the basis that they are 'Daddy's' cars that have been stolen from him.  If Ninja, in particular, were better then Chappie could have capitalised on this story, making it a disturbing tale of the corruption of an innocent, but the acting is so bad and cartoony that this never comes across.

The cavalcade of bad acting continues with a dull Dev Patel (is there another kind?), a mugging Sharlto Copley (see question re Dev Patel), Sigourney Weaver on business bitch autopilot and Hugh Jackman lost with an incoherent character who goes from pious concern about AI to gleeful violence.

Like he did in District 9, Blomkamp surrenders the ideas he did have long before Chappie ends, closing proceedings out with a series of tedious CG heavy action scenes.  Here he adds a coda, grinding the narrative gears and sacrificing what could be one of the film's few resonant moments to 'promise' a sequel.  Ultimately, Chappie is a cacophony of other people's ideas; poorly remixed and underexplored in a confused and underwhelming film.

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