Sunday, June 21, 2015

I rent, I watch, I review: CHAPPiE

So there's good news and bad news. Good news: I enjoyed "Chappie" a bit more than Neill Blomkamp's previous film "Elysium." The bad news? "Elysium" wasn't very good. In other words, "Chappie" being a bit better than "Elysium" doesn't mean that it's a good film. We're talking different levels of mediocrity here and "Chappie" just happens to be on a higher level. But, it's still pretty mediocre and sometimes it's outright bad. Get it? Got it.

One issue with "Chappie" that's impossible to ignore is the cast. The movie features Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, but their roles couldn't be more perfunctory. Hugh Jackman has more screen time and is essentially the villain of the movie, but he's got to be one of the most one-note villains I've seen in recent memory. His character, Vincent Moore, has created a giant robot called MOOSE which is a rival bot to Deon's. Deon (Dev Patel) is responsible for creating attack robots that are used as police force, rendering Moore's MOOSE unnecessary. 

Jackman essentially has nothing to do for the first 2/3rds of the movie but to act really pissed off that his robot isn't being used. He has no other aspect to him. He and Deon work in the same office together and at one point he actually pulls a gun on Deon in the office and threatens him. Nobody in the office says or does anything. Why am I bringing that particular scene up? Because what the hell does he do in that office other than continually get pissed off? If his MOOSE project doesn't work, what the hell is he there for? Moore, for much of the movie, has this little B-plot that really seems to get in the way from what this movie is supposed to be about. I wish his storyline was excised almost entirely.

Because the main plot, the plot concerning the title character Chappie, is a hell of a lot more interesting even if Chappie is the sum of several different robot movies. Deon created Chappie after creating a "consciousness" file, as an experiment, that Deon could upload into a robot that was otherwise going to get discarded at Deon's job. Next thing you know, Chappie is alive. But, there's a whole other element to this.

Before Deon can finish making Chappie, he gets held up at gunpoint by these South African gangsters who want to force Deon to turn off all the robotic police. But he's in the middle of creating Chappie and convinces them to let him complete making this robot instead, even if it means this new AI would be working for these gangsters (played by South African rap group Die Antwoord). 

Die Antwoord (who comprise of Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser) get a significant amount of screen time in this film. I'd argue they get the most screen time aside from Chappie. And this is a near-fatal mistake as they're not very good actors. They play versions of themselves, gangster versions. And while Yo-Landi demonstrates patience as she tries to teach Chappie, as Chappie essentially begins life as a newborn baby, Ninja has very little patience for the AI. Ninja has his own problems, namely having to give a rival gangster tens of millions of dollars by the end of the week. The character (and the actor) is just painful to watch the entire time. Yo-Landi does a little better except when she's put in more dramatic scenes, then she falls completely flat on her face too.

Yadda yadda yadda. This is a rental review so excuse my excessive informality, but essentially, what the problems of "Chappie" boil down to is that there are way too many plot points here that take away from the main story. Vincent Moore has his MOOSE program. Ninja and Yo-Landi owe money, lots of money. But the heart of the movie is Chappie and we have to sift through all this other plot bullshit while we watch Chappie grow and utilize his consciousness.

It's almost as if Blomkamp was afraid to fully commit to exploring the growth of this AI. Yeah, it's been done before, but he can still grow up in this gangster environment and that could be an interesting twist to the idea. There's still plenty of things you can do there, interesting things. But instead, because Ninja worries so much about his own problems, he's completely unwilling to teach Chappie anything, neverminding the fact that this is the FIRST AI CREATED in this world! Ninja immediately acts like a deadbeat father to an AI that picks up on everything everybody teaches him. Does Ninja naturally have a "deadbeat father" gene? What gives? Like "Jurassic World," it's one thing to have dumb characters, but characters this stupid really drag the movie down. Add Ninja's terrible acting to the equation and it just becomes unbearable to watch this all unfold.

What saves "Chappie" in the end is a pretty electrifying third act that finally cuts all the pretense and gets these characters in action. I am not one to clamor for action all the time but when there are so many poor story and character elements in a movie, action's the only thing it's got left. And "Chappie" delivers on that front. Almost too well.

Blomkamp has shown with his movies thus far that he's not afraid to get ultraviolent, but it's a bit shocking to see a character get pulled apart in half in a movie like this. A movie that never hints that such ultraviolence could occur. But once Chappie has finally learned as much as he needs to learn and he has purpose within the story, that's when things start to come together and allows for such great action to follow.

I just wish the director spent more time crafting a story that was more compelling in the first 2/3rds. Otherwise, the movie essentially works because all the not-so-thrilling elements early on in the story actually add up to something fairly thrilling in the end. There are plenty of low moments in the film, moments where I cringed, but I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't sucked in at the end. So, kudos for that. Doesn't make "Chappie" a great movie, or even good. But it's a weirdly entertaining film when all is said and done. I can handle weird. I'll take weird over "film made by committee with zero personal touch" any day. At least this feels like a Neill Blomkamp film, for better or worse. I know that's setting the bar fairly low, but I'm just trying to find the silver lining in Blomkamp's career. I think he has interesting ideas, he just has to implement them in a way that makes such ideas feel new. Also, please don't cast Die Antwoord in your future movies, Neill. Thanks.

Grade: C+ 

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