Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Short Circuit: Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie

Die Antwoord's Ninja, Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Chappie in Neill Blomkamp's Chappie.

It used to be that a film depicting “a robotic police force in the crime-ridden future of 2016” was a far-flung concept, usually with at least twenty years’ time for filmgoers to remember to be kind to one another and help prevent such a terrible vision from becoming reality. Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie was released this year, in 2015, which I admit makes me nervous. I hope the world of Chappie is meant to take place in some alternate reality – because if not, then we wasted the time we had, and that future has come to pass.

Anyone who has seen the film’s trailer – or any combination of Short Circuit (1986), Robocop (1987), I, Robot (2004) or even Her (2013) – will already be able to plot out Chappie’s story beats: robot becomes sentient, robot learns the highs and lows of human emotion, robot questions its existence, credits, curtain. Likewise, anyone familiar with Blomkamp’s previous work – especially 2009’s risky, fascinating District 9 – will be unsurprised that he offers more of the same: thoughtful SF quandaries that are lost in a hail of gunfire, and dull storytelling that is disguised by beautiful visual design. That Blomkamp has failed to evolve over the course of his three feature films is a contradictory comfort. His consistency is to be admired, but not at the cost of the high-concept themes and narratives hinted at by his early films. I think I could be forgiven for hoping that by now he’d have found the path away from mindless violence and into the light of refreshing, challenging SF material. Instead, he’s stuck in limbo, and we’re stuck with Chappie.

The plot is perfunctory: the South African government announces it has hired weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, led by CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), to implement robotic police officers to combat crime in Johannesburg. The robots’ engineer, Deon (Dev Patel) celebrates his design being chosen over rival Vincent Moore’s (Hugh Jackman) MOOSE prototype, and succeeds at “cracking the consciousness code,” but is refused permission by Bradley to test the software on one of the police droids. He steals one anyway, of course, but is hijacked by flamboyantly-dressed gangsters who want him to reprogram the robot so it can help them perform a heist. This somewhat pathetic excuse for a gang is Ninja and Yolandi Visser, otherwise known as the Afrikaans rap-rave duo Die Antwoord. It’s in their questionable care that Deon’s droid finds itself growing and learning (decency and faux-spiritualism from “Mommy” Yolandi; proper firearm and gangsta strut techniques from “Daddy” Ninja) – earning the name “Chappie” thanks to his innocent, cheerful disposition.

It must be said that Chappie himself – voiced and motion-captured by Blomkamp’s favourite leading man, Sharlto Copley – is an exquisite creation, a victory of CGI and mo-cap technology that rivals Andy Serkis’ work on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and will hopefully further the push towards motion-capture performances being duly credited among Hollywood’s awards community). Chappie appears fully real and tangible alongside his human co-stars, and the illusion is never shattered by dodgy contact detection (that awkward hovering space that sometimes exists between an actor’s hand and the CGI object they’re touching). That’s to say nothing of his irritating infantile voice, which succeeds in making him sympathetic, if not quite lovable. Johnny 5, he is not – but he’s a remarkable feat of film engineering that I suspect will be just as convincing ten years down the line.

If Blomkamp has improved, it’s within the sphere of his acknowledged strengths. Chappie’s aesthetic design is utterly gorgeous, guided by Blomkamp’s eye for futuristic military hardware and robotics and Die Antwoord’s bright, childlike, zef-flavoured pop art. The slums of “Joburg” might as well be post-apocalyptic with their crumbling concrete and bands of roving criminal gangs, and create a stark contrast to the bright corporate interiors of Tetravaal (a juxtaposition the director perfected in 2013’s Elysium). The action sequences are appropriately raucous, too, with judicious camerawork, fast-paced but intelligible editing, and lots and lots of things that go boom – Blomkamp loves a (literal) Chekhov’s gun, preferably pump-action with high explosive rounds, which in this film highly resembles Robocop’s ED-209. The exception is the film’s unremarkable score, which Hans Zimmer was content to phone in (in my opinion, he remains a money-grubbing musical hack, with the exception of his somehow-masterful, highly-motivated score for Interstellar; the fact that he is able to create such a wonderful musical accompaniment to a film and then chooses to hang a boring, rote soundtrack around Chappie’s neck is just fuel for the fire). 

For all its flashy thrills, Chappie is an exercise in contradiction, a film that’s divided against itself and therefore has trouble staying upright. Its treatise on sentience and machine intelligence – which is actually closer to an allegory for parenthood – remains at odds with the film’s cartoonish villains and massive, frequent explosions. The brilliance of Copley’s motion capture performance (and the tech required to convincingly pull it off) is offset by the film’s bizarre assertion that a person’s whole consciousness could fit on a USB thumb drive. The inclusion of Die Antwoord as barely-fictionalized versions of themselves is a paradox in itself, part of the film’s gonzo meta-world in which the rap duo’s real-life music career exists alongside their fictional gangbanger lifestyle. This internally fractured nature makes Chappie an inconsistent film, but not necessarily a bad one.

Chappie is really only disappointing in the sense that Blomkamp is making a habit of engaging with lofty SF concepts that are invariably discarded once the big robots with the guns come out. Blomkamp flirts with the ideas of the nature of consciousness, mind-body dualism, and the privatization of law enforcement, but in the wake of the film’s (admittedly spectacular) wham-bam final action sequence, the fertile ground of these concepts remains undisturbed. This is as much due to the action-movie structure to which the director so neatly adheres as to his own storytelling limitations – there simply isn’t room to explore what it would feel like for a human to live inside a robot body when you’re in the middle of the film’s rapid denouement. (This applies to Blomkamp’s earlier efforts, too: when the class structure of Elysium is shattered by Matt Damon’s rebellious hero character, there are only five minutes left in the film, so we don’t get to see whether or not his efforts were in vain – which, logically, they probably were. Same goes for District 9, which ends without allowing us to see how Copley’s bureaucrat deals with the fallout of his unfortunate transformation.) Plainly stated, Blomkamp seems to be a visually-talented action movie director who has somehow aligned himself with speculative SF directors like Andrei Tarkovsky or early-era Ridley Scott, even though he’s apparently ill-equipped to do much more than create awesome-looking robots and blow stuff up real good. It’s unclear if this bodes well or ill for his confirmed involvement in an Alien franchise sequel; his knack for striking aesthetic design will be a good match for that universe, but his tendency to fumble the subtleties of SF may hobble the impact of the final product. Ideally, he’ll hit the same punchy, thrilling action/horror balance that James Cameron did with Aliens.  I think to expect something more like Scott’s original film, though, is a recipe for disappointment.

District 9 was a triumph for Blomkamp in many ways, not the least of which was its ability to bring a greater awareness of South Africa’s vibrant cultural milieu to the rest of the world. Chappie, however, has no thoughtful apartheid allegory to rest upon – although it does heavily promote Die Antwoord, which (as a fan) is an aim I can only applaud. Those interested in hearing two hours of heavily-accented zef-side twang will surely get a kick out of Chappie and its distinctly South African vibe, although I don’t recommend you focus on anything other than that colourful window-dressing. Blomkamp has carved out his niche as the ultimate purveyor of “turn your brain off” entertainment, and while that’s okay for now, it will get real old, real fast. Here’s hoping that like his robotic creation, he’s someday able to plug in, and switch on.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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