CHAPPiE (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

CHAPPiE (2015)

Please join the Twitch stream at Can't Stop the Kittens. Andrew's writing is on hiatus, but you can join the kitty stream at night with gaming and conversation during the day.

Johannesburg has a crime problem.  To combat the wave of criminals roaming the city the local government commissions a tech firm for legions of robotic police.  The company's leading tech specialist, responsible for the AI governing these robots, uses his new power to research and crack the secret of consciousness.  His creation ends up in the hands of a group of thieves, and grows up in a way much different than intended.  Neill Blomkamp writes and directs Chappie, cowritten by Terri Tatchell, and stars Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, and Hugh Jackman.

Chappie can paint nowScores of executive types at Media Rights Capital and Columbia Pictures, and likely more than a few nervous shareholders, had to approve Neill Blomkamp's idea to secure the funding needed to bring CHAPPiE to life.  I can't imagine what the faces of the pitch meeting were like when Neill Blomkamp got to the part where Die Antwoord, the unpredictable cadre of performance artist / rappers, needed to be in CHAPPiE to guide the titular robotic man rabbit into his teenage state.  No matter my feelings on the rest of CHAPPiE, there's no denying Blomkamp is making films no one else thinks about.

Lucky for me I kept going back to the well, hoping to glimpse what a now international audience saw in his films.  District 9 was a catastrophe, turning an intriguing premise and skilled direction into an unbearably hypocritical examination of apartheid with a climactic battle sequence so repetitive and lengthy I'm still not entirely sure it ended.  Elysium took the same heavy-handed approach to universal health care, but showcased the same flair for visuals, and still left me cold.  CHAPPiE is the first of his films I can comfortably say I enjoyed, but the problems I have with CHAPPiE are extensions of the same issues with length and fetishistic military appreciation which have been as constant as Blomkamp's association with South Africa.

But CHAPPiE, to borrow some of Die Antwoord's expressions, is some next-level stuff.  I haven't seen this world before, one where DayGlo nuclear reactors tower over dead streets, CEOs share the same office space with the lowest of the corporate grunts, and the play acting of wannabe street toughs is so pronounced their weapons look like toys.  But the subtext of all these images, no matter how garish or playful they seem, hide the same collective drive towards the kind of infighting and violence which keep the poor in line and the rich in power.

Your tolerance for Die Antwoord may heavily affect whether CHAPPiE works or not.

Your tolerance for Die Antwoord may heavily affect whether CHAPPiE works or not.

It's a bleak joke, and CHAPPiE, in many ways, is the follow-up to RoboCop that the 2014 remake, though a good movie, was not.  Chappie (Sharlto Copley) is just a family friendly version of the '87 law enforcement cyborg, and a hilariously huge to the point of overcompensating robot bears close resemblance to ED-209.  The weapons firm which creates both these robots keeps models like toys, an obvious evolution and collective distancing from the potential totalitarian enforcement deriving from these robots.  This is funny, and shows how distanced we've become as a culture from both the idea of war and the implications of the increased military potential of our robotics, especially when we're increasingly getting our policy and policing ideas from movies where the abusive enforcement was satirized.

Into this backdrop come Die Antwoord's Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) with performances so over-the-top they could easily be mistaken for bad acting.  But Die Antwoord is as much a musical group as it is performance art, exaggerating the musical culture of South Africa in an attempt to seem "real" when artificiality is the point.  Blomkamp prepares for this criticism by explaining their exaggerated mannerisms in CHAPPiE by providing bookends which frame CHAPPiE as another documentary.  But we barely see talking heads, and the camera work is so crisp and steady it seems unlikely this is an on-the-spot recording.  We must then conclude CHAPPiE is not a fictional narrative as a documentary but a dramatization of events which have already happened.  Looking at Ninja and Yolandi's performance in this context brings their work to a sort of B-list authentic grandeur, which is another bit of fun irony considering Die Antwoord's pursuit of the fake as real as fake.

Then there's the genius of Chappie himself, whose movements and evolutionary development are astonishing.  CHAPPiE was clearly filmed with as few computer effects as possible, but with good reason.  We already have simple robots to perform household chores, filming CHAPPiE with a lot of CGI would be doing disservice to the future presented which is already here.  The programmer (Dev Patel) who creates Chappie manages to crack the secret of consciousness through energy drinks and a lot of furious typing.  Many of our greatest leaps came from mundane activities, and seeing this mundane reality presented with so much dramatic intensity is another sly joke.  Copley, who is the DeNiro / DiCaprio to Blomkamp's Scorsese, is stellar.  He molds Chappie as a creature who will never be fully comfortable in his body, and his vocal performance is surprisingly nuanced, bringing a sense of wonder when his "mommy" reads a bedtime story to him and terror when he's crying about how he wants to go home.

The home of Die Antwoord is a marvel, and constantly shifting and seemingly limitless expanse of graffiti and pop art.

The home of Die Antwoord is a marvel, and constantly shifting and seemingly limitless expanse of graffiti and pop art.

The moment we hear CHAPPiE's cry is one of the most harrowing, and shows Blomkamp's serious consideration about the morality of true artificial intelligence.  Chappie is essentially raped by a manic religious engineer (Hugh Jackman) while he's getting his arm sawed off, and Blomkamp films the moment like survivors of sexual assault describe their attacker.  The engineers face is blurry and indistinct, Chappie screams and pleads to be let go, and is constantly told he is just a thing for the engineer to do with as he wishes.  It's a powerful and unsettling scene, made all the worse when we remember Chappie is "growing up" at such a rapid pace he's mentally a fresh teen when this happened.

Shame CHAPPiE had to end on yet another gratuitous battle sequence which drags the intelligence and sensitivity of the earlier chapters into temporary irrelevance.  Blomkamp, along with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, keeps the images sharp and sometimes spectacular, such as the moment Chappie sheds different parts of the many identities he's tried on and goes into battle entirely as himself.  But the character beats using the action are infrequent, leading to long exchanges of gunfire where little is really changing in Chappie's world.  There's also the question of appropriation, especially since Blomkamp's films have been surprisingly short on black characters considering they take place in South Africa, and Die Antwoord's "gangster" mannerisms, performance art or no, are hinting at people Blomkamp has yet to show onscreen.  So enthralled was I in the good moments that these issues went out of view, but they're still present.

I've spent so much time on the merits and poorer parts of CHAPPiE I've neglected emphasizing an important point.  This is a damn weird movie, and if you're missing how skip back up to the line where Chappie is getting a bedtime story read to him.  This is without going into the fervent zealotry of the religious engineer and his worship of guns, Ninja's absurd gun handling which is nonetheless 100% effective, and a rubber chicken who gets almost as much screen time as Sigourney Weaver.  Even that last phrase introduces more problems to CHAPPiE, but is worthy of discussion along with the rest of this flawed work and compelling work.

If you enjoy my writing or podcast work, please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution! Every bit helps keep Can't Stop the Movies running and moving toward making it my day job.

Tail - ChappieCHAPPiE (2015)

Directed by Neill Blomkamp.
Screenplay written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell.
Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, and Hugh Jackman.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.

Leave Your Thoughts!

Trackbacks are disabled.