Chappie (2015 movie) review…

South Africa gets it’s own “Robocop”… After the Break…

Chappie (2015 movie) review…

What do you get when you take the (now) classic science-fiction film “Robocop,” set it in near-future South Africa & utilize all of the modern-day CGI technology that money will allow? You get “Chappie,” a 2015 film by Neil Blomkamp.

“Chappie” isn’t a shot-for-shot, line-by-line remake of the classic Paul Verhoeven film but it’s awfully close to the casual observer and the nitpicky differences between the two films are just that: A bit too insignificant to merely dismiss the notion that Chappie is Robocop’s brother from another mother. Yes, there’s a dash of “I, Robot” (the ‘Aw, H**l No!’ Will Smith movie, not the Isaac Asimov book that the movie is based upon) & “Surrogates” thrown into film but, at it’s core, “Chappie” is the South African take on “Robocop.”

In the film, we see the very near future of South Africa, where cops are augmented by bipedal robots (called “Scouts”) and, as a result, crime has all but collapsed. Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, the programmer behind the successful “Scout” program. Wilson’s success has given rival Vincent Moore (played by Hugh Jackman) some serious envy, who champions the very ED-209-esque “Moose” program. The police are not keen on the “Moose,” however, as it looks like someone’s attempt at making a Battlemech from the Battletech RPG than a law enforcement robot.

Although Scouts are smart, they aren’t sentient; They aren’t self-aware. The Holy Grail for Wilson is to make them self-aware which CEO Michelle Bradley (played by Sigourney Weaver) flatly refuses to do; Not because of any moral hesitations but simply because everyone likes the Scouts just the way they are and why fix what isn’t broken? Wilson doesn’t give up and works through many Red Bull drinks to achieve what may be the breakthrough in sentiency that he’s been looking for. A recent Scout destined for the scrapheap because of irreparable injuries (it’s battery can’t be replaced) becomes a test subject for this newfangled program but, before Wilson can test it out, he’s kidnapped by some conniving criminals who figure that, in order to disable the scouts, they have to disable Wilson. Under pressure, Wilson activates the robot with the sentiency program, leaving the Scout (named “Chappie,” hence the movie’s title) to be “taught” by the band of criminals and setting into motion a very dangerous chain of events for everyone involved.

There’s nothing immediately wrong with “Chappie”; The art is fine, the cinematography is fine… Lighting… Costumes… Locations… The film acts and looks as though it belongs amongst the pantheon of films that deserve to be in the typical, modern-day cinaplex. There’s no “Aha!” moment that one can point at the screen to in order to dismiss the movie out of hand. If anything, there are a handful of moments that are authentically genuine about the movie that elevates the story above the standard fare. For instance, the design of the robot itself was quite nice, with very active fins that act like rabbit ears which gives the robot a lot of expressive emotion. Another nice touch was the “main” character of Deon Wilson being of Indian (as in India, not Native American) descent; Yes, it might be a bit of cliche stereotyping with the role but it was welcome to see the diversity, nevertheless.

One aspect of the movie that was appreciated was the film’s devotion for being in a foreign environment and displaying it with some authenticity. The main actors all speak with their accents (one, so much so, that sub-titles were needed) and it’s always welcome to see how other cultures approach various movie genres. We see people driving on the other side of the road, using local slang, and resolving situations as would be typical of that part of the world.

A missed opportunity in detail were the very colorful (as in color, not description) weapons that the criminals used. One might expect that the playful, day-glow colors might be used as a device to fool Scout robots into thinking that they weren’t weapons but this is never mentioned in the film. It’s a lost opportunity to have added some depth to the story.

In terms of casting, it was refreshing to see a lot of relatively unknown faces (not unknown if you live in South Africa) which, oddly enough, made the well-known cast members seem somewhat out of place. Hugh Jackman makes a game attempt to blend in, mostly because his Australian accent is a close enough match to the other accents used in the film. However, Sigourney Weaver (who has had a rather successful second renaissance as of late) is miscast with an extended cameo appearance that adds nothing to the story except for a bit of international star power. Michael Biehn was supposedly up for this role as well and, all that I can write is… For what? The CEO does very little in the story and, with a bit of creative editing, could have been completely edited out of it as well. Any actor could have filled that role and the fact that such a well-known actress is there makes one think that the role will emerge into something more then it ultimately does.

A lot of the story goes down familiar roads trodden by prior films. Anyone who has seen the original “Robocop” will likely wonder if Paul Verhoeven isn’t getting royalty checks from this film. Taking away that specific storyline, the movie does competently trod along some fairly routine storytelling staples, such as the struggle between creator and creation, the abuse of the naive, the emergence of humanity amongst criminals, man versus machine, and so forth. The structure of the story itself doesn’t have a lot of faults except that it takes awhile to build up to the climactic third act and, when it finally arrives, doesn’t exactly overwhelm. Yes, the Moose & Chappie robots eventually fight but there’s an odd sense of underwhelmness in the climax. Perhaps the underwhelming feeling stems that Vincent Moore’s character is a bit irrational at the end; If all he wants is his Moose program to be taken seriously, why does he have such a vendetta against Chappie / Wilson? Why not just demonstrate the Moose’s prowess in the city proper once the Scouts are disabled? Why not just go through the legal channels (which, in a slight way, he actually does in the film but nowhere near to the extent that someone actually would) to allege – with evidence – that Wilson has severely broken company protocol?

Science-Fiction can be mercilessly nitpicked and, while tempting, I’ll refrain from going through the litany of “But why did they…?” which could apply to virtually every science-fiction film. However, near-future films that feature fantastic technology in one field without advances in other fields is a little bit striking and not believable. Sure, we have walking, talking bipedal robots but no mechanical aid for the disabled? No sex robots? No robotic dogs or similar pets? No self-driving cars (or cars driven by robots)? No mechanical behavioral aids for criminals? Such near-future films (such as “Surrogates”) strains credibility and although the behind-the-scenes rationale would be budgetary concerns, the absence of ancillary applications to such an extraordinary technology is a severe deficit that the film can’t eventually overcome.

If one were to damn the film with faint praise, perhaps the faintest praise of all is that Neil Blomkamp has now made three films that are suspiciously similar to one another, each a fainter echo from the last. Each of them involve some form of consciousness transfer, each of them are set in South Africa-esque conditions, each of them involve the downtrodden rising up against their oppressors in some form… There is an unbelievable amount of sameness amongst all three of Blomkamp’s films to the point where they may as well be an unofficial trilogy of sorts. It’s not as egregious a charge as could be interpreted, for directors such as Hitchcock, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and others all have their familiar themes and tropes that they fall back upon. However, Blomkamp doesn’t yet have the resume where he can use the same ingredients over and over again without the accusation (deservedly so) of diminishing returns.

Finally, a movie such as this (especially near-future films with amazing technology) always seem to “bury the lead,” to use a newspaper term. In the case of Chappie, Wilson creates a sentient robot but Chappie discovers the ability of transferring sentiency from robot to robot & from human to robot, effectively creating functional immortality for the first time. Does this mean that Wilson now has the same hyper-active learning ability as Chappie? How will that alter his existing personality? How will they live? Who can they trust? In the movie TRON, near the beginning of the film, scientists teleport an orange from one part of a laboratory to another without any subsequent fanfare. Because… You know… Anyone can teleport an orange over a great distance in a matter of moments… In the 1980s…

“Chappie” isn’t a bad film; It’s just very derivative of other films and of the director’s previous efforts. I half-expected to see Matt Damon walk past in his exo-skeleton suit at some point or Peter Weller show up as a business executive (imagine that bit of inspired casting). The one exciting part of the movie’s plot (functional immortality) is a complete afterthought in a film that’s devoted towards safer territory (sentient robots) that not only has been done before but, to be completely honest, was done better. South Africa now has it’s own “Robocop” which, I suppose, is perfectly fine. However, they could have just saved themselves the trouble and simply rented the movie if they wanted it that badly.

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