Like a potpourri made of spices hand-selected not for their complimentary qualities but rather their sole aromatic strengths, Chappie is a sensory assault of clashing confections which manages to, in the end, produce a pleasant experience.
Neill Blomkamp is one of the best things going for science fiction currently. In a number of ways, he reminds me of Philip K. Dick, exploring many similar themes with the same realistic stink and weary inevitability. Dick’s future was a bleak one, one where the machinery and possibilities of were built with the same flaws and evolutionary muck-ups their creators possess, one where we grafted our own broken image onto something else. Blomkamp has much of this same texture, if not fueled by as large a helping of melancholy. In District 9, he used aliens and their quarantine as a parallel for South Africa’s struggle with apartheid. Elysium follows some similar threads with its focus on the disparity between classes. And while I’m simplifying these two films for both ease and sake of space, Chappie is a larger undertaking altogether with what it chooses to discuss and how, with the result becoming the aforementioned scent.
Chappie is a film unsure of what it wants to be. It is one part a conversation about what it means to be human. It is one part a conversation about class. It is a conversation, to degrees, about xenophobia. About upbringing. About morality. Science fiction is known so well for addressing these themes time and again – look to I, Robot, to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The Day the Earth Stood Still – and here Chappie is no different, though the way Blomkamp pushes these issues together into one vast cauldron is what makes the dialogue interesting. As such, the missteps are not with these explorations so much as they are the film’s tone, at times cycling furiously between dramatic dark and humorous farce. A large part of the issue is found in Blomkamp’s choice to use South African hip-hop duo Die Antwoord as two of the main characters, and Chappie’s largest sphere of influence in the film. If you are remotely familiar with the group, you’ll understand the curiosity of their use, both Ninja and Yolandi, respectively, having, respectively, less… conventional proclivities, many of which are displayed front and center. For those of you unfamiliar, which I suspect will be many, I do not recommend looking them up and traveling down that particular rabbit hole. Know only they are a group I am simultaneously fascinated and horrified by.
Their acting is fine. Ninja – I feel ridiculous even typing that out – did not receive much critical reception from what I can tell, but I was genuinely surprised. He played himself, and though there are levels with which that can go awry, he did himself well. Yolandi too. Their style is known as “Zef”, which a preliminary search explains to be out-of-date and “trashy”, not something I much picked up on, where I would more likely tell you to imagine a Chav living in a trailer park in the southern U.S in an effort to explain them. At any rate, these are Chappie’s mentors. Loosely. As such, Chappie, the only robot with a consciousness and true sentience, learns from them in the way a child does, mimicking their posture, their vocabulary, their ideas of right/wrong, and even a sad understanding of what passes as “normal” to them. I’d recently watched the documentary Rich Hill which is a heartbreaking look at the cyclical nature of the struggles of America’s poor, and I couldn’t help but see a fair amount of comparisons in the way Chappie would emulate his adoptive “parents” much as the children of Rich Hill would theirs without knowing any better. Admittedly, the goofiness in Chappie’s learned personality does an excellent job of highlighting his child-like qualities. Though a robot, I immediately took to him as the toddler he’s described as being, and in this way, his innocence is clearly apparent, a fact Blomkamp does a fantastic job of capitalizing on in his exploration of those traits of ours we pass along to whom we teach. Though it’s an interesting lens to view yourself through, forcing a look at what words we choose, what actions we convey, what person we choose to show ourselves as to others, its juxtaposition alongside the heavier moments makes for large swaths of disparity.
Hugh Jackman plays what I suppose is the film’s main antagonist though, I could argue, there are a handful of these. His actions are clear while being largely unexplained. He is the xenophobe, fearful of truly intelligent A.I. with a zealot’s fervor, a fact which is never much addressed aside from a number of sign-of-the-cross gestures leading me to assume his concern is for the blurred line between who can or cannot play God. Jackman’s character otherwise does not strike me as remotely religious appearing more a crazed army vet with a penchant for instability, making me wonder if my creationist theory is a wrong one. Part of his issue with Chappie’s creator Deon, and yet another reason he’s the main antagonist, is the two work for the same company both attempting to create the next best robot. Deon wins. Jackman spends all his time and energy trying to get their boss to give his project a go while sabotaging Deon in the process. He’s just petty, which may be the real answer here, coming off as incredibly one-dimensional and prone to tantrums. Not too exciting.
My friends felt Chappie overstayed its welcome some, but the run time didn’t bother me. I enjoyed the two hours or so I spent in that world. Chappie is not an action film, another plus for BlomKamp in my book. Though he doesn’t always get it right, he is unafraid of exploring what he wants to explore in the way of his choosing, fearless in the way a storyteller with something to say must be, and through its (at times) odd filter and slower pace, I was treated to a number of interesting concepts I began thinking on from the time they were introduced right up through the typing of this sentence. And this sentence.
A fair amount happens here, none of which I want to give away as plot-points beyond theme. There are no real twists in the Shyamalan sense, but a handful of “Ahhhh” moments do exist, all of which are wonderfully handled. Chappie is more a true successor to the brilliant District 9 than Elysium, and one I would recommend on that merit alone. Again, like Chappie himself, the film is a little unsure of who or what it is, a little too ripe with the possibility of its blank slated potential. Though there are struggles, Chappie does what every good piece of science fiction should do: make us relate to the seemingly unrelateable and, in turn, come to better understand ourselves in the process.
I’m anxious to see what Blomkamp does now that he’s been tapped for the new Alien film. Him being in control of one of my favorite properties has me ridiculously excited.