Capsule reviews: CHAPPiE
Erin: If Robocop were a three-year-old.
Michael: You’ll probably feel the same way about it as you did the first time you saw Starship Troopers.
According to the sources I tend to trust on the quality of movies, I was supposed to hate this one. And certainly that was what I expected going in, but we had been invited by friends, and I was determined to not be a critical d-bag about the film choice. My low expectations helped me take the film for what it was and enjoy it despite its flaws.
The other thing that primed me to like CHAPPiE was our theater’s decision to show clips of related films before the main feature–a luxury of not having to show advertisements. What they chose is telling of the film: Robocop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven), Short Circuit (1986, dir. John Badham), and I, Robot (2004, dir. Alex Proyas). CHAPPiE plays like a mash-up of these three films. That seems to bother many critics who don’t see how the three different sets of ideas and tones match up, but I had no problem navigating the film’s turns. It may also be telling, however, that with the exception of Robocop, these films are seen as mediocre on RottenTomatoes and Metacritic.
CHAPPiE’s premise: In the near future, in Johannesburg, a company named Tetra Val has created robot “Scouts” to assist police and has effectively dropped crime. But inside the company, there are two developers with different plans. One is Hugh Jackman’s mulleted Vincent Moore, who has designed a human operated robo-tank named “Moose.” It has less appeal to the police than the Scouts because it is big, ugly, and overkill. The other developer is Scout-creator Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, who has managed to create a conscious AI. He wants to test his program on a Scout set to be demolished, but Tetra Val boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) wants none of it. She wants Deon to be happy with the Scouts’s success. But was God satisfied with his success after day 5 of creation? So Deon steals the Scout body set for destruction to install his consciousness.dat file. In the meantime, a group of street criminals (played by Die Antwoord) botch a job and get in debt big to the local kingpin. They think that if they can get one of the guard keys to the Scouts, they can reprogram it to work for them and pull a huge heist to get them out of their $20 million debt. So they kidnap Deon with the Scout in the back and the guard key to install the consciousness program. Thus Chappie is born–and he truly is an infant at the start. He learns as a human learns, though faster, and the street criminals and Deon play at-odds parents to the fledgling AI. Also meanwhile, Moore has plans to make Moose more appealing to the police.
Okay, so one of the film’s flaws is pretty clear from that premise: there is too much plot here. And the grand explosive finale doesn’t quite justify the threats to Chappie from all sides. But that’s all I want to say about that.
What really got me good, got me truly hooked, was the depiction of Chappie on his second day of “life” which roughly corresponds to toddlerhood. He’s picking up phrases, mimicking the humans around him, he accepts guidance and criticism in short “yesses” and “nos.” He was, in short, my nearly 3-year-old. The writing, the animation, and Sharlto Copley’s performance combined to absolutely make it authentic.
In fact, throughout the film, Chappie is, ironically, the most realistically human of all the characters. The other characters are all overblown caricatures. I believe this is a feature, not a bug. Hugh Jackman’s Moore is the first tip-off of this. He sports a mullet, open carries a handgun, and after the meeting where the police tell him Moose isn’t necessary or welcome to what they hope to accomplish on the streets, he looks into a mirror (suggesting a split of his personality but also calling to mind Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty) and takes on a villainous grin. His character is writ so largely he might as well be a Disney villain. After seeing that in Jackman, who can act subtly when called for but clearly isn’t doing so here, the fairy tale-esque characters are visible everywhere. Our caricatured street thugs played by Die Antwoord, Deon the Creator, even Weaver’s boss, all of them seem more suited to satire or cartoon than a realistic sci-fi film. The ending of the film likewise is fairy tale-esque.
This is where Paul Verhoeven’s influence is felt (both Robocop and Starship Troopers). Because while this film smacks of the allegorical, it is a slapsticky smack. This film is not taking itself too seriously. While it doesn’t overtly seem to be satirical, it rides that border. With the allegorical elements, the comedy makes for an interesting statement on the construction of human violence–the elements that combine to push a person from innocent, curious child to remorseless killer. The film doesn’t take a light hand with this lesson, but the comedy makes it far more enjoyable.
I watched the CHAPPiE trailer on Hulu, ’cause robots. I was amused to see Die Antwoord and touched by the emotive Briareos antennae and childlike sense of wonder. But I knew we weren’t going to catch it in the theater. I can still count on my hands the number of films we’ve seen on a screen since our toddler was born, but only just.
I sort of rode the initial excitement generated by the trailer and the almost inevitable souring and cynical backlash as the marketing process and early reviews spooled out. I think a lot of folks expect Blomkamp to replicate the feeling they got from District 9, a feeling a lot of the same folks have reconsidered in the intervening years. I wasn’t chasing anything.
CHAPPiE‘s a good movie. It juggles a lot plot with deft hands. You’ve got the accelerated learning curve of an emerging artificial intelligence, several interpersonal and professional conflicts, and an unsustainable social crisis maintained and exacerbated by the primary subject of the story. As a viewer, you’re never confused. Never bored.
That’s because CHAPPiE is a fairy tale. Concise. Clean. Broad. Abrupt. Erin mentioned that the robot is the most human character and that’s kind of the point. The supporting cast is made up of familiar types grafted onto a recognizable context built from generic conventions. If Robocop, Appleseed, Short Circuit, or Blade Runner come to mind, then it’s working as intended. The viewer feels at home and can move on.
For some critics, this kind of thing can become a game they play with themselves, the director, and their audiences. Where’s this shot from?
That’s a bit of a trick, actually. It’s everywhere because it’s amazing and evocative. It really should be in everything from wedding photos to Star Wars. My point is that the visual references to Almost Human, Dredd, and whatever else are there to delight and dazzle because the Johannesburg of CHAPPiE is impossible. As impossible as a kingdom whose princes are turned to ravens.
And just like that kingdom, everyone but the protagonist is there to serve a purpose. Chappie’s creator, his adoptive parents, his nemesis, his cool uncle, the CEO. You get the idea. Chappie lives in and because of these relationships.
Like a fairy tale, it refracts the values of the viewer. Sure, it has a message. You can’t miss the commentary on drone warfare and the militarization of police departments.
Make no mistake, though, CHAPPiE is a comedy in pretty much every sense of the word. I suppose whether it’s funny or not is up to you, dear viewer. But it’s not taking itself too seriously. Because it’s a fairy tale, because it’s impossible, it allows stuff like assault with a deadly weapon in the workplace to go unremarked. Consciousness is revealed to be more or less identical whether silicon or carbon. There are cuts to security camera footage that those of us in the theater seats seem to be the only monitors of. And there are moments like this which you’ve seen countless kids and dogs do.
The movie focuses the competing influences arrayed about Chappie once he gains sentience and how those influences are absorbed and integrated into the person he becomes. Yup, person. There’s a journey from object to subject, from child to adult, and from creation to equal.
Explosions and body horror accentuate the chaotic, nonlinear, asymmetric process we all go through growing up. In true fairy tale fashion, violence externalizes the social and psychological conflicts inherent in becoming a member of a community and establishing boundaries. Like Starship Troopers, it goes considerably over the top, so your mileage may vary.