Directed By: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay By: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman
2014 was a year chalked full of polarizing films. Under the Skin, Interstellar, Birdman, Maleficent, Inherent Vice, Foxcatcher and American Sniper are just a few that come to mind right away that had people shouting at their devices as they listened to reviews they disagreed with during their favorite podcasts or throwing things at their computers as they read an unfavorable or in some cases favorable review. Whether you liked or dislike the films in question the fact remained that all of these films provided for some great debates and conversations as everyone weighed in with their thoughts on the merits of this film or that film. It’s what makes talking about films and reviewing films in general entertaining.
It didn’t take too long for us to get our first example of this in 2015. I would have lost a bet however, if I said that I thought that example would come via a film entitled, Chappie. What makes the Chappie discussion so interesting is that it’s not a debate on if the film is well done or has issues. It seems universal that there is an acknowledgment that there were a multitude of issues present in the film. The debate is not about whether the issues exist but instead what exactly those issues are and how prevalent those issues became. Perhaps even more central to the debate is if those issues are enough to take away the pure enjoyment or entertainment value that the film consists of. I have heard and read well thought out and sound arguments concerning the issues this film has. I have also heard and read just as many arguments that I simply feel miss the mark entirely. I will try to touch on both of these items in the following paragraphs as I try to give the most well-rounded review that I can on Neill Blomkamp’s latest, Chappie.
Chappie presents to us the story of a future civilization where robots have been used to supplement the police force. In a plot setup eerily similar to that of Robocop the ‘Scouts’ as they are referred to in the film, have proven a successful experiment in crime prevention. We then transition behind the scenes to see the organization and the individuals responsible for the creation of these machines. It is here where we are introduced to two inventors/entrepreneurs who would play ‘pivotal’ and similar roles throughout the remainder of the film.
On one hand you have Deon Wilson (played by Dev Patel) the man responsible for designing the scouts. Wilson not resting on his laurels is hot on the pursuit of a goal he sees as even more important than the mission of the company he works for, to bring consciousness to his machines. He yearns to create something unfathomable and seemingly impossible, a robot who can think like a human, a robot with feelings and emotions, one with the ability to think creatively and make human decisions.
On the other hand you have Vincent Moore (played by Hugh Jackman) the man who for all intents and purposes lost out to Wilson when it came to funding and approval of his own robotic designs. Moore’s ‘moose’ served a much different purpose and function than the scouts mentioned above. This machine was entirely controlled by a living breathing human, via a neural helmet of sorts, in a way that made this invention more of a vehicle for law enforcement rather than an actual law enforcer. The moose was also much larger and bulkier in scale than that of the Scout. Moore like Wilson was also in hot pursuit of a goal. Their goals however were much different in scope. Whereas Deon was striving to create something groundbreaking with major impacts to life as we know it, Vincent was striving to create something that could be used as a weapon and he was strictly concerned with controlling society and keeping it constrained inside a figurative box of law and order.
We then transition to Wilson as he is able in one energy drink induced all-nighter to create the unthinkable and succeed in his mission. Thus, Chappie is born (played magnificently by Sharlto Copley). It is from this point on in the film that we almost completely focus on the character of Chappie and his development from an infant robot into a full functioning conscious individual.
Through happenstance Wilson and Chappie fall into the laps of a group of gangsters named Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika (and yes two of those names are the actual names of the ‘actors’ playing those characters). The film at this point becomes a three lane adventure. In one lane we have Ninja and his gang raising Chappie in hopes that he can help them pull off the ultimate heist in order to pay off a local kingpin and set themselves up financially going forward. In the second lane we have Deon attempting to teach and care for Chappie in order to fully realize what his breakthrough may be capable of. In the final lane we have Vincent attempting his own selfish goals of brining down both Chappie and the Scouts in general in order to propel himself back into the forefront of the companies hierarchy. Underlying all of this is the fact that due to an earlier injury, Chappie only has five days to ‘live’.
I won’t go into too much more of the plot and what happens from here on out so as not to spoil any of the film for those that haven’t seen it yet. I assume however that you get the point. “Chappie” is the story of….well, Chappie, of course. I feel like this is where so many of the critics of this film have failed. They base their entire critique of the film on a failed premise and for some reason came away from the film thinking it was, or perhaps should have been about the relationship between Chappie and Wilson. That’s simply not the case. The film is about Chappie, end of discussion. Everything else and everyone else is simply the setting that Chappie finds himself in. The story is not about those people or their actions however but instead about the creation of, the development of, the maturing of, and the experiences of Chappie.
If you can get behind that idea and that premise, many of the flaws of the film will fade into the background as they should. I have yet to hear or read one negative thought when it comes to the actual character of Chappie himself. People have praised Copley’s performance as the robot (as they should). They also have found the character humorous, slick, endearing, and relatable to. Not only that, but they have also again and again described the various levels of sympathy and or empathy they have for the character. This character was simply done right and because of that, if you enjoy the character and realize that the character of Chappie is what this movie is about, you should be able to get a lot of enjoyment out of this film. To think this movie’s central focus is about any one relationship between Chappie or any other character and someone else is just plain silly.
That is not to say that there aren’t other very worthwhile ideas and themes being presented to us or touched upon throughout the film. Ideas of parenthood, the value of humans versus machines, ideas of control, the cruelty of human nature, human capital, the idea of what makes humans human and a few other themes can all be seen, heard or felt throughout the movie. Although the film focuses on one character all of these other themes and ideas can help present to you a much more rounded experience on a first or even probably more so a second viewing. It is for these reasons why it’s absolutely understandable why one would enjoy or be entertained by this film.
A lot of people reviewing this film however are failing to see this personal connection that many can garner out of it. They simply don’t understand how one can fully admit and acknowledge the flaws that are all too noticeable and yet STILL enjoy and even like this film. Those two notions are NOT mutually exclusive. One can fully see and admit to these flaws while at the same time enjoy their experience and have an emotional connection to the characters or story being presented. Don’t fault the movie for not having the focus you expected it to have. Also, please, oh please, don’t fault the film for not focusing enough on a character that is literally on screen for over 90% of the films runtime.
Instead fault it for things like the complete waste of talent and character that both Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman represent in the film. Fault it for the fact that this technological center, responsible for controlling the entire police force apparently has no budget whatsoever for its own security. Fault if for setting up an object such as the guard key as so important for its fail safe characteristics when in reality it can go missing for days and not even the head of the company is aware of it unless “Guard #1” decides to inform her. Fault it for being a company where multiple people apparently go unmonitored and have unfettered access to vital areas and important machinery throughout the complex with no consequences. A company that apparently has only one office area where those who succeed and those who fail literally sit desks apart, AND also allows threats at gunpoint to go undocumented and undisciplined. Fault the movie for creating a character in Hugh Jackman that goes stark raving mad and loses complete sight on reality in one of the most violent ways possible with no motivation for his actions other than bitterness because his invention came in second place. Fault the movie for introducing Chappie as a robot with the characteristics of a newborn baby but then fills him with learned reactions and responses to things that no baby has ever had prior to experiencing such things for themselves. Fault it for casting individuals with no acting experience whatsoever in central roles to the film. Fault it for somehow allowing a character to come up with a way to transfer consciousness from one machine to another with a mountain of Playstations, a laptop, a neural helmet and a jump drive but at the same time depicting the idea of obtaining an alternate power source for an existing machine as unfathomable. Fault it for not being satisfied with transferring one characters consciousness to another form but for needing to do it THREE times before the movie is over.
All of these items are legitimate complaints and problems with the film. They are undeniable and easily seen. The question then becomes, can one still enjoy and be entertained by the film even with these glaring issues. Are the issues enough to ruin the film? Is the character of Chappie and the things he makes us think and feel enough to come away from the movie feeling like we were fully immersed in this world and this adventure? There may be varying degrees of responses to these questions. Personally, I believe this is going to be one of the most quotable films of 2015. Chappie is also going to be one of the most memorable characters we see throughout the year. I also believe the ideas and issues raised by the film are worth discussing and worth thinking about. To say this is the worst movie of the year or the worst movie you have ever seen is hyperbolizing at its worst. It’s no where near either of those things. It’s a flawed movie yes. However it’s also a movie that gives us a character and a development of a character that is engaging and entertaining, emotional and memorable. Take off your critic’s glasses and get in touch with the human side of yourself. If you are able to do that, you will find a lot of things to enjoy about Chappie.