Sony Pictures Entertainment
My wife and I have been going around cracking each other up lately by repeating a line from this week’s artificial intelligence fable in the plaintive, childlike, South African accent of the title character. “I have consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” Trust me, it’s funnier with the accent. By themselves, these lines aren’t all that bad, to be honest, but taken as a whole, the screenplay for Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie” all but destroys what was an interesting idea and some very brave, if ultimately wrong-headed, directorial choices. Much of what you hear in “Chappie” is just dumb, completely undermining the incredible visuals. What a disappointment.
The film opens with Blomkamp’s documentary-style talking heads, discussing the enormous impact that Chappie has and will continue to have. I liked this a lot in “District 9,” but here it seems out of place, and disappears completely after a few seconds. The tale takes place in the near future, and Johannesburg, South Africa had been nearly overrun by crime. The weapons manufacturer Tetravaal takes it upon themselves to solve the problem by introducing a robot army of police, each powered by a basic form of artificial intelligence. This allows the robot to make split decisions on the job, but it’s not like they’re going to go on a cross-country tour to find their real mommy or anything. That is, until an engineer named Deon, the actual inventor of the original technology, decides to take things further and create true AI, a machine that can think and feel, just like a real human. This is where things go off the rails a little bit. Apparently in Neil Blompkamp’s world, newly formed AI would be completely analogous to either a human baby or a squirrel – curious, crawling around, scared of loud noises and fascinated by shiny things. Deon absconds from his company with a damaged police robot, intending to upload his software into it and then, in a curious twist of fate, finds himself carjacked by a trio of thugs who think he can provide them with some kind of remote control for the robot police force. The TV has a remote, they reason, so why not a million-dollar piece of equipment?
After this, the tale really begins to founder. Randomly, Deon offers up his greatest achievement – his life’s work, to the hijackers in order that this new lifeform, his AI, could help these criminals pull off a major heist. These dim-witted reprobates are Ninja, and Yolandi, who in real life comprise the South African band Die Antwoord, and in the film are apparently playing themselves. This was confusing, to say the least, but probably not as confusing to me as it was to people in South Africa who have actually heard of these people. I suppose it would have been the same as if Eminem were to play a criminal in a movie named Eminem. They even go around with Die Antwoord t-shirts with their own pictures on them. The two are truly bizarre looking – Ninja, tall, covered in tattoos with a weird mullet gives off a definite meth-addict vibe. He’s the more normal of the two. Yolandi looks like an alien. Odd white skin and hair, skimpy clothes, and the voice of a six-year old create quite an impression. At first, I was fascinated by the duo, who are joined in crime by a completely normal looking hispanic guy from America, who they call “America.” Soon, though, it became obvious that, though they seem to be giving it their all, Die Antwoord are not really cut out for the big screen, not that the script was doing them any favors. Yolandi is the better of the two, but the two seem like they would be more at home in a “Mad Max” movie.
After Deon loads his software in to the robot, Yolandi immediately becomes “mommy” and Ninja angrily takes up the mantle of “daddy.” Deon gets to be “the creator,” much good it does him. Chappie, christened by Mommy, learns fairly fast, but not fast enough to avoid having to deal with mean bullies, an angry, rarely present father, and a demanding God. As the CGI on “Chappie” gets better, the script gets worse, offering up muddled and inconsistent motivations for the characters, often punctuated by terrible dialogue. Blomkamp seems to know what he wants “Chappie” to look like and where the story should end up, but getting there is a big problem.
Worse than Die Antwoord, who’s presence on-screen was at least interesting, are Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver as the big and somewhat lesser villains, respectively. Weaver simply has nothing to do but sit behind a desk and look greedy, but Jackman, a rival weapons designer, throws himself into the production to no avail. Alternately sympathetic and completely evil, Jackman does not put his best foot forward here. What does work, however, are the graphics. Blomkamp is very good at integrating a completely false digital image into a rough and tumble urban environment, an element shared by his last three films.
It’s a real shame that not more of “Chappie” works. I found myself chuckling only a few times and was barely engaged enough to stick-around. The concept is interesting, and with a solid cast and solid director, it should have been a cinch. But Blomkamp, perhaps in part because of the inclusion of Die Antwoord, perhaps just because he wasn’t able to crack the story, never regains control of “Chappie” after it begins to go off the road. Initially kind of funny and sweet, “Chappie” turns gruesomely violent at the end, an abrupt tonal shift that leaves the audience confused. I really wanted to like this film – I’ve enjoyed Blomkamp’s others, even when everyone else hated “Elysium.” “Chappie” has interesting moments, incredible CGI, and an over-arching plot that I was interested in, but the details and the dialogue are incredibly poorly planned out and the entire endeavor feels like a big, sad waste. Grade: C-
“Chappie” is rated R for gruesome violence, brief nudity, and language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.