Friday, 3 April 2015

Movie Review: Chappie (2015)

With the speed at which I usually churn out these reviews, usually the day of if not the morning after seeing the film in question, it takes something special to mess with my writing system. Every so often, I’ll come across a film that requires more time than normal for me to digest, analyze and get my thoughts down onto my word processor. Birdman was like this, because the ideas expressed in it actually took a little while for me to break down in my head. Wyrmwood was like this, because I was so adulated upon finishing watching it that I had to let myself cool off for a bit before I allowed myself to get down my thoughts on it, lest they just descended into pure fanboy squee. Foxcatcher was like this, because of not only how little an impact it ultimately left me with but also because of how much it was overshadowed by other events that took place the same night I watched it (They involved an averted street fight, giving a stranger their keys and a bunch of guys trying to mate with a metal sculpture… maybe I’ll explain all of that someday, but somehow I doubt it). Today’s film is another such occurrence, only for different reasons than the others. Put simply, as I write this several days after having seen it, I am still trying to wrap my head around what exactly I think of this movie. This is Chappie.

The plot: In Johannesburg, robotic police enforcement has become viable thanks to the technological designs made by Deon (Dev Patel). After one of his robots malfunctions, Deon uses it to test an experimental artificial intelligence he has been working on, turning it into Chappie (Sharlto Copley). As he is taken under the wing of street gangsters Ninja and Yolandi, and rival engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) wants to sabotage Deon’s work and get rid of Chappie and the rest of his models in favour of his own robot enforcer, Chappie learns about the world around him and must figure out where he fits into it.

This is a pretty wonky cast, with some actors being very well casted and others being rather bizarrely miscast. Dev Patel does a good job as the overly eloquent and technical Deon, sounding a lot more natural here than he did in either of the Marigold Hotel movies. Sigourney Weaver… is in this movie, if I remember correctly (Yeah, she leaves that little an impact in her rather stock role). Hugh Jackman, an actor better known as the rugged good guy or at least the anti-hero, is completely out of his element as the antagonistic technophobic religious zealot Vincent. Jackman’s understanding of being the bad guy seems to extend only as far as taking a giant wrecking ball to the scenery, making his upcoming role in Pan look like an exceptionally bad call if this is anything to go by. Sharlto Copley as Chappie embodies that kind of childhood innocence and awkwardness that is pretty much standard for this kind of robot character, but he’s very good at portraying that. Why there are so many people comparing him to the avatar of all things wrong with George Lucas’ brain that is Jar-Jar Binks, I still don’t know; you need perspective and maybe a bit of common sense if you honestly think he comes any close to the same galaxy as Jar-Jar.

However, the most surprising part of the entire cast is Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord, and if their lack of attached actors in the plot breakdown looks suspicious, that’s because they are essentially playing themselves. I was initially worried upon seeing them in the trailer for this movie, and became even more so considering the trailer severely downplays how much of a prominent role they both play in the movie, but it gradually began to make sense to me. Die Antwoord may be an internet meme masquerading as a rap group but Ninja and Yolandi are essentially characters themselves, making their appearance in this film justifiable. Add to that their overblown depiction of ‘gangsters’, along with the South African setting, and they fit into the film astoundingly well. Yolandi, in her music at least, has always creeped me the hell out; something about that high-pitched alien voice of hers has made me all kinds of reluctant to check out her music voluntarily. However, we don’t get that here at all, definitely a better decision considering she is Chappie’s surrogate maternal figure and unless this was gonna be some kind of sci-fi remake of Mommie Dearest, going all Rich Bitch was not going to be a suitable fit for this film. Ninja, while being decidedly thick, works as a great counterpoint to Yolandi and representing one of the uglier paths Chappie could go down. Walter Jones has had plenty of experience playing up the ultraviolent tendencies that the character encapsulates and he pulls them off to great effect.

“Chappie Five… is ALIVE!” It’s seriously difficult to talk about this film’s plot and not bring Short Circuit at some point, to the point where I suspect that the only reason Dev Patel isn’t using the accent he put on the Marigold Hotel movies just to avoid further comparisons. However, for the sake of avoiding what I’m sure is well-trodden ground by now, I will avoid the obvious jokes (aside from the one this paragraph started with… dammit) and instead focus on how the writing here is a bit of a mess to say the least. The idea of a form of artificial intelligence growing to the stage of being close to or identical to humans is as old of science fiction itself and the film seems to be aware of this. For one, there’s a scene involving Deon and Weaver’s Michelle Bradley where Deon is explaining what his AI could be capable of, focusing on the more artistic capabilities. Michelle then shoots down his pacifist ideals by explaining that she runs a weapons manufacturer; it’s a cute little moment that feels like the film is poking fun at its own sub-genre, which helps even out the weirdness brought on by Die Antwoord’s mere presence in this movie. For another, the film makes that little an effort to really discuss the question of where the line between artificial and real intelligence is and just assumes that the audience will recognize Chappie as real. This isn’t helped by the fact that the main person arguing this point, Vincent, is so over-the-top that I was expecting a twist where he was a prototype AI robot that had gone insane; seriously, it would more sense if this were the case but alas. That’s not to say that this film feels completely unrealistic; far from it, as a lot of moments sell the core idea of the film astoundingly well. Whether it’s the little things like the military computers still running Microsoft XP or the bigger additions like the superbly done CGI and motion capture for Chappie, this film somehow managed to keep me convinced throughout… despite the occasional bizarre moment, like having multiple PS4s act as a server to store a person’s consciousness. Honestly, I don’t know what’s the weirder showing of product placement: This, or the Xbox 360 time machine in Project Almanac.

With the questions involving AI pretty much discarded, the film instead chooses to focus on creating an allegory for the relationship between God and Mankind using Deon and Chappie respectively. The only problem with this is that this question also takes the backseat to everything else going on, from the well-done fight scenes to the unnecessarily subtitled gangster Hippo (Brandon Auret); then again, I imagine it would be hard to focus on deep philosophical questions when you’re looking at gunfights with literal pink pistols and other pastel-coloured weaponry. For the most part, we’ll get a couple of lines between Chappie and Deon to further their relationship, but honestly I felt more of a connection between Chappie and Yolandi, whose interactions actually got me to tear up on more than one occasion. That is, until the ending… and it is here that my brain just exploded. This ending shows off the God and his Creation allegory in quite possibly the most brilliant way I have seen in any medium, even considering how often it is used in stories like this. *SPOILERS* Maybe it’s down to differences in philosophical leanings, but I have always understood Man’s connection with God to be like the M.C. Escher sketch Drawing Hands: God created us in his image and as a reflection of himself, and we in turn imagine God in our own image and a reflection of ourselves; like two hands drawing each other. This idea is perfectly conveyed with the film’s ending, showing off the kind of insanely insightful thinking that I wish the rest of the film utilized. I don’t want to give away exactly how this goes down, but I’ve strongly hinted at it enough here so I put the *SPOILERS* tag on here just to be safe.


All in all… honestly, I find myself in the same position I was in when I started writing this; this might be the most uneven cinematic experience I’ve ever had. On one hand, the action scenes are great, the effects work is superb and the ending is absolutely amazing (if slightly terrifying because of the final shot), but on the other hand, the characters are so broadly written that they could touch both ends of a football field, the acting is great in some parts but clich├ęd and hammy mostly and the story touches a lot of points seen in several other films. I guess when it all comes together, it’s a pretty dumb but fun ride that ends on a jarringly intelligent note. It’s better than Citizenfour, as what I took away from this by the end felt like it had more significance than the standard paranoia I got from that film, but it’s not as good as Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead, where what doesn’t make sense about it is helped by the fact that it doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously. As confused and rambly as this review may have ended up, even more so than my usual fare, at the end of it all I can’t help but recommend this film.

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