Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Be a Good Chap, Won't You?

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp made a big splash with his debut film, District 9. He then made the critics remark that "hey, every director misfires once in a while" when he followed up with the forgettable Elysium. I've now caught up with his third movie, Chappie. In my view, the downhill slide continues. (Not that I thought it actually started from as high a point as many seem to think.)

Chappie is the story of a police robot in a not-too-distant-future South Africa, who is experimented on by an idealistic programmer after being marked for the scrap heap. The programmer has cracked the problem of artificial intelligence, and "Chappie" is the result. But the robot is immediately taken by a gang of criminals, who begin to raise the young intelligence and warp it according to their values. What sort of person will Chappie turn out to be?

There are a number of problems plaguing this movie, but the biggest one is character. The only one with any logic or consistency is the title character, the artificial intelligence. Nobody else's behavior makes any sense whatsoever. A programmer who should be moving heaven and earth to protect his creation of a lifetime (perhaps the biggest breakthrough of all humanity) seems almost ambivalent to leave it in the hands of criminals and work the problem in his spare time away from his job. The criminals who have a death threat and a massive debt hanging over the heads seem to forget all about that when they have a cool new robot to play with. And even though the robot is the clear answer to their problems, they actually abandon it at one point -- to toughen it up or something.

Bad characters begets bad acting, and there's plenty of that in Chappie too. Hugh Jackman plays an ambitious rival programmer with a mullet and a pair of Crocodile Hunter shorts. He's too cartoonish and one dimensional to amount to much -- yet not cartoonish enough to serve his function as the "Dick Jones" character pushing the "ED-209" in a subplot ripped straight from RoboCop. Sigourney Weaver is here too, but in a boring, glorified cameo. Either she's "collecting directors" with this appearance, or Blomkamp has dirt on her. Dev Patel can't make sense of his non-sensical character, who is neither paternal enough to be a father figure to Chappie nor obsessed enough to be the genius who could have created him. And the various South African hip-hop artists who round out the gang -- well, they're not actors, and it shows.

The one good performance -- indeed, the one saving grace of the movie -- is Blomkamp's regular on-screen collaborator, actor Sharlto Copley. Here, he provides the voice and animation reference for Chappie. He perfectly captures the "man-child" aspect of the newborn AI, brain working at a mile a minute. He's fast-talking, desperate for guidance and affection, deep-thinking but inarticulate. It's an absolutely on-point performance that's frankly wasted in this scattershot story.

At this point, I'll approach Neill Blomkamp's next project with great skepticism. I know some fans were disappointed to hear that his prospective Alien sequel had been benched in favor of Ridley Scott's planned Prometheus sequel. Me, I'd rather have another Prometheus than another Chappie. (Particularly when Ridley Scott has so recently reminded us that he's also capable of making some excellent movies too.) I give Chappie a D+. Straight to the junkyard with it/him.

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