Monday, March 9, 2015

Movie Review #227: "Chappie" (2015)

Ticket Price: $12.50
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours
Image Source
In Johannesburg, South Africa, crime has been running rampant, and in order to combat skyrocketing crime rates and police deaths, an army of robotic law enforcement officers are employed to fight crime. The artificially intelligent police do a fantastic job of helping to bring crime rates down in the city. Deon (Dev Patel), an engineer for a weapons manufacturer called Tetravaal, is the creator of these robots and wants to further his research by creating a truly artificially intelligent robot that can not only think but feel and live. After finally cracking the code on how to do this and despite him being told not to by company president Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), Deon loads his program into a battle-damaged robot. Unfortunately, Deon is kidnapped by a group of thugs who steal his robot, who they have named Chappie (Sharlto Copley), and teach it their criminal lifestyle.  

On the surface, "Chappie" seems to be a film that can be reduced down to simply "Robocop" meets "Short Circuit," and even the trailer would lead audiences to believe this, as it somewhat misleading. What we actually get is something much darker and much deeper than a simple popcorn action flick. As is the case with most movies from director Neill Blomkamp, we have come to expect that he finds a way to work in those agendas which are closest to him, and this is no exception. Unlike the robots in the other films we named, Chappie is created truly tabula rasa, or blank slate. Much like a human child, Chappie must learn everything from understanding language to speaking and morals. He has no core database to draw from and must create one from scratch, though he can do so at a hyper-fast rate. The film explores the philosophical issues of personhood, as well as the notion of what makes you, well, you, and the much more scientific and social issues of nature versus nurture. When Chappie is, for lack of a better term, born, he is in a criminal environment with surrogate parents Ninja and Yolandi, played by the South African rap-techno band Die Antwoord as themselves, who want to use him as part of their criminal doings. Deon, played by Dev Patel, is Chappie's "Creator," and is, in essence, a God-like character for him. In the brief time that Chappie spends with Deon, Deon is able to instill some semblance of the idea of morality in Chappie, making him promise not to commit crimes. Since Chappie is battle-damaged, he learns that he has a short lifespan and starts to question why he was created at all, since it seems like he was only made to die. This drives a moral dilemma within him and allows him to be manipulated by Ninja. Eventually, we find out if Chappie can establish right from wrong intrinsically, not because of what others are telling him, but through what he experiences on his own. He must find a way to rise above the world he is presented with. Hugh Jackman plays an ex-military man named Vincent, who fears the artificially intelligent robots and wants his design, which looks like bigger, more bad-ass version of ED-209 from "Robocop" called the Moose, to be used instead, though he has also been turned down by his boss, Michelle Bradley, on several occasions. His design is really a battle drone that is controlled by a human's brain using a neural helmet that scans for activity. Two observations about him that are completely unrelated to his character's purpose: 1) What's with the horrible khaki short shorts? and 2) What's with the completely unnecessary and distracting mullet? Vincent eventually finds a way, though not necessarily a good one, to get his Moose off the ground and creates more conflict where there previously was less conflict.

Now, let's be honest. This film isn't perfect, in fact, it's far from it. It's pretty messy, can be all over the place and is full of some clunky, laughable dialogue, but that doesn't make it a bad film. One of the main problems with this movie is Die Antwoord, but please don't break our kneecaps. They are not actors, they are musicians (if you can call them that at all). Yolandi is much more tolerable than Ninja, who is straight-up annoying and distracting, but we guess he fits his gangster role well, if by fits you mean he's tatted from head to toe, talks with a foul mouth and has a gangster lean like Eminem. Their presence is completely over-saturated in this movie. Not only do they star in this film, but their band name is on more than one of their outfits, including a huge central shot of their band name and their faces towards the very end of the movie. It's like Neill Blomkamp wanted to simultaneously make a living, breathing, walking movie about an A.I. robot, as well as a living, breathing, walking ad for Die Antwoord. Beyond the wonderful accompanying score, done by Hans Zimmer, Die Antwoord even comprises most of the movie's soundtrack! THERE IS NO ESCAPE!! We never really feel sympathetic for Ninja and Yolandi, and in fact, we don't really feel sorry for anyone else either because no one is particularly likable, except for Chappie himself. Jose Pablo Cantillo, who plays Amerika, partner to Ninja and Yolandi, feels so out of place in this movie. His character's name makes me wonder if it, too, was supposed to serve as a subliminal but not so subliminal message. Dev Patel acts excellent as always, but even his character is unlikable and whiny at one point. Hugh Jackman's character is a former military man and a "blink and you'll miss it" religious person who fears artificial intelligence, but wants to use his war-mongering attitude to unleash the Moose on humanity. Sigourney Weaver has apparently made it a point in the last year to be criminally underutilized in all of the movies that she's in. Sharlto Copley, Neill Blomkamp's right hand favorite actor, voices Chappie, and while some have said they didn't think his voice fit the role, we disagree. He has just enough innocence to his voice that makes him believable as both a child-like robot in his beginning stages and a full-on gangster for the rest of the movie.

Despite all of this, one thing is for sure: the special effects are amazingly beautiful and are about as close to perfect as you can get. Fresh onto the scene with "District 9," Blomkamp came out swinging with his impeccable graphics, production designs and CGI use, and "Chappie" is no exception. The way filmmakers were able to convey Chappie's emotions by simply moving his ears a little, or by changing the eyes on his little screen were excellent. There are also some awesome action scenes, as well as some humor, mainly provided by Copley's voicing of Chappie, and even a little heart, too, though it's easy to understand why some critics did not get invested in the emotional aspect here. There are no hard lines in this film, no real clear heroes or villains. Much like with real life, it isn't so black and white, but actually, is just a whole lot of gray. Each person has their good and bad points and do both right and wrong, but we connected with certain characters, as well as Chappie, and even when he is doing wrong, we still found a way to understand him. For this movie to even work at all, Chappie had to be put in a bad environment with bad people to eventually rise above it. This movie won't be for everyone. It can be seen as overly preachy when it comes Blomkamp's overall message of not using violence and guns, but then turns around and uses guns and violence to gets its message across. We admire his dreams, ideas and ambitions for film making, but he really does need to reign it in and contain what he wants to do and say so the execution isn't as sloppy as it was here. None of this stopped us from enjoying the film as a whole.

And for those saying that he needs to make movies away from South Africa, would you tell Woody Allen to stop making movies about New York? Or would you tell Peter Jackson not to film his movies in New Zealand? No? Then stop complaining and stop taking everything so seriously!

My Rating: 7.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 8/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 29%
Do we recommend this movie: Yes!
One year ago, we were watching: "August: Osage County"

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