Directed by Neil Blomkamp
Neil Blomkamp burst onto the scene like a force of nature in 2009 with District 9. A mature film-maker with a fully realized vision, he tore into the mainstream with a debut film that amazed audiences with its technological achievements and with the emotional heart underneath all those ones and zeroes. Until Blomkamp's first full length feature, most visual effects were very clean, very sanitized. Even as the physics improved, the look of most of the digitally added components still had a sheen to them. With District 9, we got our first look at filth and dirt and grime on objects and characters created inside of computers. And that, combined with a great story, made District 9 the success it was.
It also made District 9 a bit of an albatross hanging around the neck of Blomkamp's reputation as a filmmaker.
There is a difficulty in judging a new film by Neil Blomkamp and I experienced that difficulty after the film finished and the credits rolled. I tried to go into it a blank slate, I tried not to bring any baggage into the theatre with me as I found my seat and leaned back and let the experience of the film wash over me. But, to be honest here, it didn't work. My first thoughts were disappointment that Chappie wasn't the epic experience that District 9 was. That it wasn't the life-changing moment that District 9 was. My reaction was more "m'eh" than anything else.
And then I slept on it. Because I have made an arrangement with my brain for these things I write - sleep on it before you write about it. You really wouldn't want to read these things if I wrote them immediately after I saw the films. American Sniper would've been nothing but "Sienna Miller pretty, Bradley Cooper big." And The Interview would've been nothing but "I wanna party with Seth Rogen and James Franco is so weird." 50 Shades of Fill In Your Own Title would've been nothing but 600 swears and venom and hatred. And so I pondered Chappie and tried to figure out what was bumming me out so much about the movie and then I slept on it.
And I figured it out today, what was making me so down on Chappie - it really isn't District 9. And now, after a good sleep, in the cold light of a winter day, I also realize that is a good thing. I wouldn't really want another District 9. But, because Neil Blomkamp's filmography is so small right now, three films in all, I think that is what most of us wanted from him. And we're not going to get it. I remember other filmmakers having this issue with audiences and reviewers, like Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and other incredibly imaginative artists who could not get a fair shake for a while because of the weight of their first successes. I guess what I'm trying to say here is after Se7en, Fincher directed The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room. But it wasn't until Zodiac that people stopped comparing his work to Se7en. And, until Blomkamp can put some years between himself and District 9, this is kind of a problem for his work. Because his new film really should be judged on its own merits.
Chappie is, at its core, an updated Pinocchio set in the near future in Johannesburg, South Africa with some elements of Robocop thrown in. But it really is so much more than that. It is at times hilarious and heartbreaking and has a really surprising emotional core. The city is being patrolled by a mechanized police force designed by Dev Patel's Deon Wilson. Deon creates an artificial intelligence, steals a damaged robot that has been slotted for crushing and upgrades the robot with the new program. And Chappie is born. Chappie learns language and behaviour from the people around him. He gets a moral centre from his creator, emotional growth from a gangster's girlfriend, a tough guy swagger and attitude from the gangster and his associate.
The human characters in Chappie are caricatures, broad generalizations of basic human needs and desires and motivations. In most films, that would be a criticism, a detriment. But here, in this film, I suspect it is on purpose. The character of the robot - learning to speak, playing with a rubber chicken, mimicking behaviours and twitches and mannerisms - becomes so much more multi-dimensional than the human characters. Chappie the robot becomes, really, much more human than anyone else in the film, with the exception maybe of Anderson Cooper.
The small action set pieces really are wonderful. When the gangster convinces Chappie to steal cars by telling him that these people stole his cars is hilarious. Serious laugh out loud hilarious. The heist scene is well blocked and shot and dramatic but also surprisingly emotional and heart wrenching. Where everything kinda goes wrong is the big action set piece. It's not really that bad, it's just a riff on Robocop that could have been better. Though Hugh Jackman's manic giggling and muttering during the scene almost saves it.
Chappie the film has some flaws and Hugh Jackman's mullet isn't the least of them. It really is a ridiculous looking thing on his head. Some of the dialogue is painful. A couple of the performances are so bland they might as well have been played by beige wallpaper. Sigourney Weaver, I'm so sorry, but I'm looking in your direction. It really is hard to watch someone I have so much respect for phoning it in.
But all of what is right in Chappie rests on one pair of shoulders. And those shoulders are never actually seen in the film. Sharlto Copley, first seen in District 9, turns in another amazing performance. Even though he is either masked or digitally replaced for the entirety of the film, Copley creates a fully realized performance. He really is the heart of the project. He brings humour and pathos to a role that, between Copley's performance in this and what Andy Serkis has done in the Planet Of The Apes series and in Peter Jackson's films, we as a culture really need to broaden our definition of what a great performance is.
Chappie isn't a perfect film, it's not a great film, but it is a good film and it's worth your time.
Side note: I want to take a moment to recommend a podcast to anyone who has read this far down. Fan of film? Fan of podcasts? Don't know what exactly a podcast is but are dying to find out? Then definitely check out I Was There Too. Every couple of weeks Matt Gourley sits down with people who were in classic movie scenes and they have a conversation about the making of the film. Conversations with the likes of Paul F. Tompkins about his role in There Will Be Blood, Ricco Ross who played Pvt. Frost in Aliens, the bus passengers from Speed, or, in the latest episode, a sit down with Eileen Dietz who was the face of the demon in The Exorcist.
Sound like something cool to you? It really is. Just search for I Was There Too in iTunes. Or Google it. Or search for it on Netscape. I won't judge.