Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Dir. Neill Blomkamp
2.5 out of 5
It takes a village to raise an automaton. That's the most cogent takeaway from the sci-fi thriller Chappie, in which the architect (Dev Patel) of Johannesburg, South Africa's robotic police force uses a decommissioned machine to produce a sentient form of artificial intelligence. But when the little guy, childlike and helpless, falls into the hands of some desperate street thugs, his development oscillates between the warm, compassionate wonderment supplied by his surrogate mother (who impulsively dubs him "Chappie") and his criminal exploitation at the hands of his father figure - played respectively by South African rappers Yolandi Visser and Ninja, better known as Die Antwoord. Then there is the harsh, violent reality of Chappie's environment, where a stable urban society exists adjacent to a quasi-Mad Max wasteland, characteristic of director Neill Blomkamp's consistent predictions of a future starkly divided between the haves and have-nots.
Chappie, at its core, is not so different from Boyhood - if Boyhood also featured a beefed-up version of the ED-209 from RoboCop controlled by the thoughts of an ex-military hardass (Hugh Jackman). The film's coming-of-age element maintains a critical emotional through-line within Blomkamp's loud, hyper-stimulated action aesthetic. The tenderness and cute humor of Chappie himself - animated via the vocal and "poor man's motion capture" performance of Sharlto Copley - cuts through the static of an energetic but often hopelessly cluttered script. Co-writers and real-life partners Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell have crammed enough ideas and subplots for multiple movies into Chappie, resulting in a film that feels disjointed for its first two-thirds, then hopelessly rushed once it's time to tie all the threads together.
But some of those threads, taken individually, can be quite intriguing. Much like Ninja is obsessed with teaching Chappie all about the hard knocks of life in the slums - and the exaggerated macho hardness that's required to endure them - Blomkamp is preoccupied with the idea of authenticity expressed as coolness. He's mashing up the worlds of Coachella and SXSW, alternating between the profanely-tagged abandoned rave site that is the criminals' hideout and the sleek, supermodern technocracy where Patel's and Jackman's characters are rivals jockeying for position in the pecking order of scientific and cultural innovation. In the end, Chappie's own cinematic parentage is an amalgamation of Blomkamp's two previous films, Elysium and District 9; it's both a hopelessly confusing crackpot mess and a visually stunning work of ambitious social import.