At first I didn’t want to review this film. The reason? I saw CHAPPiE with two friends in an otherwise entirely empty theater, and what we witnessed was something best riffed on in fits in hysterics as opposed to soberly critiqued. But in the end, I did not choose to save CHAPPiE from scrutiny – this review will balance its analysis with a higher proportion of incredulousness than dealt to most other films. If the review goes off the rails, that’s ‘cos the film goes off the rails.
In the near future, Johannesburg has implemented a force of humanoid police robots, designed by young scientist Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) through the weapons manufacturer Tetravaal. Meanwhile, Tetravaal head of security Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) thinks that the program should go even further with the tank-like MOOSE design (which is straight out of RoboCop, incidentally). When Deon succeeds in creating an A.I. program, he uploads it into a damaged humanoid robot, but both creator and created are kidnapped by gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (Die Antwoord), who wish to train the robot to fight the police for them. The robot gains the name Chappie, and its constructed “family” must avoid the deadly machinations of Vincent Moore, and rival gangster Hippo (Brandon Auret), to whom Ninja and Yolandi owe money.
Where to begin? Let’s start with Neill Blomkamp, director and co-writer of the film. His freshman and sophomore efforts, District 9 and Elysium, were also set in Johannesburg, and the continuation of similar themes into CHAPPiE means that they’ll come up again several times later. But what I want to ask now is, what is the defining characteristic of Blomkamp’s directorial style? Judging from the docudrama conceit of District 9, the use of news footage in all three films, and the extremely lived-in environs, I’d answer, a sense of realism and grounding. In the common parlance, a gritty realism. His films, if nothing else, aim to immerse the viewer in their near-future worlds. So in light of this, it’s just the most natural thing in the world to cast South Africans rappers Die Antwoord as the main characters of the film (they have the most screen time out of anyone), and go on to have them wear their own merchanchise, and listen to their own songs! These decisions are as irritating as they are baffling, and it makes you wonder what Blomkamp was thinking. That is, until you remember that the Matt Damon role in Elysium was offered not only to Eminem, but Ninja from this very film. So, Yolandi Visser and Ninja do indeed play (sigh) Yolandi and Ninja.
Now, completely apart from the Die Antwoord thing (and Blomkamp’s loyalty to South Africa is in a way admirable), the basic set up here kind of works on paper. A completely innocent and self-aware robot is led astray by a group of gangsters, while at the same time a genuine affection binds the characters together. Bits and pieces of that emotion come through in the film, but it’s just drowned by the fact that Die Antwoord has so much screen time in the film, and are the least compelling thing in it. Their role is confusing as well; are they really supposed to be protagonists the audience roots for? From the first they’re established as gangsters with a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later policy, and don’t think that they are given any development beyond the fact that the villains make them look sane by comparison. Look at the set up of this film’s hero/villain dynamics another way by thinking about District 9 and Elysium. Both films did a crystal clear and concerted job in casting established authority as the villains. CHAPPiE commits partway to this, with Vincent Moore being off his rocker, but Die Antwoord’s characters do in fact commit robbery throughout the film; there’s a reason the police is on their case. They are not victims of (dystopian) police brutality, an issue that would have instantly sold the delineation of hero and villain. They are more amorphous than outright heroes or villains, but the screenplay doesn’t do any work in presenting the complications of the story. It’s less a function of ambiguity, but rather, lack of direction.
Now let’s get into the fun bad stuff; this is going to take a while, because there’s a lot. Main villain Vincent Moore is quite a piece of work (understatement of the century). There’s a scene where Vincent chats with Deon in his cubicle, and offers to hang out at the gym with him; pulls a gun on Deon and slams his head onto the desk; and finally, gets up, announces to curious coworkers that he was kidding, and offers to take Deon to church on “Sunday, any Sunday”. You can’t make this stuff up; I mean, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell can, but I sure as hell can’t. At the climax of the film, Vincent remotely pilots the MOOSE tank and does nothing less than tear a man in half with its robotic arms. Watch Jackman in this scene. He literally looks like he’s getting off on this ultraviolence. I would love to have been on set during the filming of that scene. How was Blomkamp directing him? “All right, Hugh, your character is clearly compensating for something, so just go with it!” Backtracking a bit, when the MOOSE proposal is initially rejected, in each subsequent scene Jackman plays it as if he’s on the brink of murdering everyone around him. Why in the world is he so bothered by this? I know why, it’s because he’s an insane villain whose only three character traits are a profoundly unhealthy need for the release of violence, a drive to exercise… and Christian faith. Why would you write him like this??? But, never you mind. He’s such a train wreck of a character that watching him becomes an exercise of pure perverse joy – I adore how bad Vincent Moore’s characterization is. Anyone who has seen Dungeons & Dragons knows how much delirious fun can be had watching Jeremy Irons devour the scenery, and upchuck it to boot, as the villain Profion. Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that Vincent Moore belongs in the exact same over-the-top league.
On the subject of villains, secondary villain Hippo also attracts some very curious decisions. For one thing, his regional dialect is subtitled (and only in most of his scenes; a few times it’s not for some unknowable reason), despite being more intelligible than a lot of Ninja and Yolandi’s. Then, towards the end of the film, Hippo springs into action and yells, “I want every fucking thing!” He sure isn’t kidding; he wants every fucking thing to such an extent that when the protagonists begin to attempt a getaway in a truck, Hippo doesn’t say “Stop!” or, “Where do you think you’re going, you bastards?!”, but rather, “I want that truck!”
This villain problem is interesting to put in context with Blomkamp’s other films. Elysium and CHAPPiE have two volcanically over-the-top villains each. In Elysium, main baddie Jodie Foster affected her line readings to a nauseating extent (“I know it is not the… fashion – to think and act as I do”, she says at one point – a fact for which we can be very grateful), and muscle Sharlto Copley was like the Tasmanian devil if he were a bounty hunter. They were thoroughly cringe-worthy, while CHAPPiE‘s villains are at least so bad they’re endlessly watchable, so point CHAPPiE, I guess? All I can ask is, what happened to the complex hero/villain dynamics of District 9?
Let’s hit all the other bad and baffling points in a marathon sprint…
– Towards the end, Chappie thrashes a character to the very brink of death while screaming, “No more violence!!!”
– At one point, Deon exclaims to Vincent that “everyone will know” the illegal and destructive things Vincent has been into, and Deon proceeds to tell exactly 0% of “everyone”, despite a decent timeframe to do so.
– The opening of the film shows a flashforward to TV footage broadcasting news that cannot be reconciled with the ending.
– In a scene where Deon drives away from Chappie, Deon screams with the utmost earnestness, “Nurture your creativity, Chappie!!!”
– At another point a character says, “This is certainly a fuck up”. Jeez, don’t you know reviews will just snap up stuff like that?)
– In the middle of the film, Ninja abandons Chappie to the mercy of young delinquents. The image of a young gang throwing a molotov cocktail at Chappie is great for a trailer shot, but it is hilariously arbitrary in the context of the film. When Ninja comes back and is asked why he did what he did, he literally shrugs and mutters “I don’t know”. That moment is such a glimpse of self-awareness in the screenplay that it threatens to break the fourth wall.
– Aaaand, finally: Deon tells Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) that he has created responsive and self-aware A.I., and she dismisses him offhand by responding in a mildly annoyed but level tone that Tetravaal is a weapons manufacturer. SO WHAT? He’s a genius-level scientist who just told you he’s created life! Say aliens made contact with humanity. Would you not bother with the news because you work in the post office? “Try my sister at NASA. I guess she’d like to know.” This movie! It reads like stand-up!
Phew, okay, let’s get to a few more positive points. Hans Zimmer’s score has some effective moments. The sequence where Ninja gets Chappie to hijack people’s cars is the only part of the film that is (a) funny and (b) meant to be so. But the star of the show is Chappie himself. You will never know if what you’re looking at is a physical robot suit or a product of CGI motion capture, but one thing that is certain is that Sharlto Copley gives his all in the mo-cap performance. Call him the source of moments of charm in a towering sandstorm of anti-story.
CHAPPiE is based on Blomkamp’s earlier short film Tetra Vaal, which actually features the same design of police robot we see here. It’s crazy to think the design was finalized in 2004. I won’t say Blomkamp should have left well enough alone, because I found the film entertaining… albeit for all the wrong reasons. The end credits song by Die Antwoord is an appropriate cap to the film, because it’s tonally deaf to the soaring emotion that came mere seconds before; it’s a hallmark of a film that is long past saving because it seems intent on sabotaging itself. CHAPPiE is indeed CRAPPiE. Almost nothing works as it should, but almost everything works as comedy. The movie is a malfunction. A strong 1/10.