2009 was not the best year for me. I was living in Germany and going through the worst high school experience of my life. It was so bad I confined myself to my room after I returned home. But when I saw District 9, it made up for all the shit I had to deal with. It was violent, funny, and for the first time in while, it was smart science fiction that had something to say. I had not seen a movie like it since RoboCop. It put Neill Blomkamp on the map and I was excited for his follow-up Elysium.
Then I saw the movie.
I will not get into why I did not like it because I already did in my Mockingjay review (http://wp.me/p4Mzvz-1A), but the movie failed because it had no idea what it was trying to say. I understood the themes of immigration and class warfare, but the way they were portrayed screamed pretention. District 9 was about apartheid, something Blomkamp experienced first hand. When he set out to write a film about immigration in America, it would have been a good idea if he knew what he was doing. And do not get me started on the class warfare bit.
That is a subject NO ONE understands.
I went into Chappie expecting more pretention with the theme of police oppression. I had a little more faith because South Africa is known for having the toughest cops on the planet, not to mention the multi-billion dollar PMC industry. Then again, you cannot afford to be any less than tough in a country rife with crime and an even worse rape epidemic. Patrolmen stop cars with Vektor R4s because they could be shot in the face before reaching the window. Did Blomkamp portray police oppression in a respectful light, or was Chappie another dud?
While better than Elysium in almost every way, a few superficial problems prevent Chappie from being as good as District 9. What is more important is how it handled the theme. Honest in its portrayal, the film made it clear the need for tough cops and/or droids. Furthermore, Chappie is less about police oppression and more about the meaning of parenthood, creation, and transcendence.
The story takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. The situation has become so out of control, police use combat droids to assist their operations. Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, is a robotics engineer who wants to grant a robot artificial intelligence (AI). After happening upon a decommissioned droid to experiment on, Deon is kidnapped by criminals who want to use the machine for crime. But when the droid is reprogrammed, they find it more like a child than an indestructible enforcer.
Upon further examination, one finds Chappie is about the implication of parental figures on a child and the influence of religion.
On the one hand you have the criminals, real-life rave duo Ninja and Yolandi (yes, those are their names), who want to shape Chappie to become extensions of themselves. Ninja is the Father, stern in his efforts to turn him on an amoral path, and Yolandi is the Mother, bent on sheltering and teaching him. Above them stands Deon, the “god” who gave him form and function. His influence is purely moral whose goal is to better Chappie’s personality, creativity, and understanding of the world. The end result is something akin to a child who grew up within the span of five days. Their accumulative influences decide how Chappie acts and reacts to what he encounters and both parties respond according to what they wanted.
It shares many similarities with the story of Pinocchio. A boy is created and given the choice between morality and mischief. Choosing the latter alters his appearance until it overwhelms what his maker intended. The journey henceforth leads to redemption and transformation.
Compared to the theme of parental/religious influence, the theme of transcendence is not original in the context of a sci-fi story about robots. It has been done to death in every form of entertainment you can imagine. Chappie does not focus on transcendence, but towards the end it takes center stage, portrayed in a very on the nose and abrupt manner.
I get the feeling Blomkamp and his co-writer/wife Terri Tatchell had a complete story, but because it has robots they assumed they needed something about AI and humanity. The end result is not offense or stupid, but there was enough story beforehand it was an unnecessary addition. Ghost in the Shell, I, Robot, RoboCop, and Blade Runner handled it far better. That being said, what happened was more or less interesting and entertaining.
What really hurts the movie is the acting. Performances were generally bad all around, but the worst came from Ninja and Yolandi. I understand they are musicians, but did the casting director take that under consideration when putting them in key roles? They were not on the scale of Tommy Wiseau because every time they are on screen, it was cringe worthy instead of laughter inducing. Although, I will say that Hugh Jackman as Vincent Moore had a lot of fun with the Dick Jones villain role. He was enjoying himself almost too much and it was great.
The exception is Sharlto Copely in the title role. His entire performance, emotional and physical, was based on mimicry and a child-like understanding of the world, making for an entertaining and sympathetic character. You become genuinely invested in what he is doing and what happens to him throughout.
Chappie is great science fiction and well worth your time. The acting may be the worst, but the themes and exciting action sequences more than make up for its shortcomings. Give this movie your time and money.