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Next stop, Dystopia.  One practically hears that in oneís head upon entering a screening of a Neill Blomkamp film. The South African director is now three-for-three in placing each of his features in a very ugly, dire world of haves and have-nots, crime and destruction; there was his eye-opening debut with District 9, his sophomore - and sophomoric - Elysium, and now, coming to you from the near-future, hereís Chappie.

Life is scary.  Thatís the way things are in South Africa; criminals and gangs run rampant through the streets and thereís simply too much risk to police officers.  One security company has the solution - Robocop! - no, actually, itís an android programmed to be the first line of defence in police infiltrations. The slender androids take the worst of the battle, while their human partners round up the bad guys.  The robots have been a huge success and their manufacturer is reaping the benefits, but that isnít enough.  Their creator, Deon, wants more: He dreams of an android that can acquire information, learn from it and think on its own.  Despite the success of Deonís previous non-sentient models, his company president feels no need to fix a droid if itís not broken and tells him to give it up.  You cannot stop science (fiction), lady!  So Deon sneaks a battered droid, ready for recycling, off company grounds to install his artificial intelligence chip into it.

Of course this would happen on the day that a group of would-be thugs get it in their heads to kidnap the creator of the security androids, with a grand plan to make a big heist while the scientist contains the robots.  Not being a particularly well thought-out strategy, the trio finds itself flummoxed when it turns out that Deon doesnít actually have the clearance on his person to shut down the droids, but being resourceful little buggers, the gang finds something they might be able to use in Deonís van.  While in captivity, Deon decides to initiate his artificial intelligence program, bringing to life the robot shell, which then responds as a newborn baby animal would, with terror and curiosity to the strange new world around it.  The girl thug names him Chappie (cos itís cute?), while her male partners decide to turn the android into the biggest gangster (wankster) in Johannesburg, and so begins the (mis)education of the robot with a brain.  The loss of an android doesnít go unnoticed for long, particularly by Deonís biggest rival, Vincent, whose own virtual reality-controlled, Sherman tank-sized mechanical monstrosities have been shoved aside in favour of Deonís sleeker, smaller, smarter droids.  Motivated by jealousy and a religious zeal that instantly opposes him to a robot that can learn and operate without human help, Vincent launches his own personal Crusade to bring down Chappie and Deonís entire program while boosting his blissfully unintelligent jumbo bots as the only real alternative.

ďAnd someday, I'm gonna be a real boy!Ē so goes the quote from Disneyís Pinocchio, based on Carlo Collodiís tale of a wooden puppet, who, once given a modicum of life, wished for more.  There is a lot of Pinocchio in Chappie; the desire to understand what makes a human and to have a real family of his own.  But that heartwarming story has no place in a Neill Blomkamp film, and so Chappie owes equally as much to Robocop, the directorís own District 9,  and strangely, Sasha Baron Cohenís Ali G Indahouse.  Had Blomkamp stuck closer to the more family-friendly Disney demographic, Chappie might have stood a chance to not be the failure that it is.

There are so many things wrong with Chappie, itís hard to know where to begin.  Thereís Blomkampís strange wavering between making a fairy tale that he couldnít decide was for kids or adults.  I guess he kept vacillating until the last act where a robot severs a thug in half and flings the bleeding top of him into the air.  Thereís the incredibly poor script (co-written by Blomkamp, and wife, Terri Tatchell) with dialog for simpletons and nonsensical moments galore.  There are countless head-scratching episodes, such as when we realise that the hardcore gang of thugs has a zillion dollar robot in their possession and the best they can think of to do with it is spray paint it, slap gold chains on it and teach it to speak in South African patois.  How does the trio remain alive when they are absolutely the stupidest gangsters on the African continent?  That Chappieís creator never feels the need to tell the police or his company that the ground-breaking, experimental technology, along with a full droid have been stolen, even after having his life threatened frequently by the Crayola crew.  Why is there a Latino-American homeboy in the slums of Joíburg and why is he the only one of the three stooges we can understand?  Why did Blomkamp feel the need to foist the hip-hop duo, Die Antwoord upon worldwide viewers in the main roles of Chappieís ďparentsĒ when they are possibly the worst, most headache-inducing actors imaginable (Followed closely by their gang leader/nemesis, who actually requires subtitles to be understood and resembles a cross between Yosemite Sam and John Travolta in Battlefield Earth)?  Why are we supposed to care about them or their relationship with Chappie, when they are flat-out abusive and cruel to him?  If the gang is so poor, why do they live in this huge warehouse space with gallery-quality portrait photographs of themselves all around and expensive-looking customised outfits featuring their own image?  How can they not know their idea of rap gangster culture comes Straight Outta Breakiní 2: Electric Boogaloo? How is it the robotics company that provides security across Johannesburg does not have twenty-four hour on-site surveillance, or the merest alarm if anyone - authorised or not - makes major changes to the police robotsí programming?  All Vincent has to do to sabotage Deonís androids is sneak into his rivalís cubicle and have at his computer.  Did we need to sit through the extended scene of the thugs abandoning Chappie in the middle of gangland territory and watch as the innocent robot begs for his electronic life while being kicked, beaten and set aflame by a police-hating mob?  This is followed by Vincent and his henchmen, joyfully abducting the sentient android and sawing off his limbs.  Robot or not, I knew we would have some sequence of rude awakening for the naÔve Chappie, but this seemed excessive and came to nothing in the end as Chappie never reaches the height of reaction that such acts of betrayal, selfishness and sadism by those calling themselves his ďmummyĒ and ďdaddyĒ might induce.  I owed a lot of holes like these to Blomkampís not really knowing what Chappie was meant to be.  The script is too simple and dumb to be taken seriously as a film meant for adults, and too sporadically gory and brutal for kids.

There are some plusses amidst Chappieís many minuses.  The embodied comedy that is Hugh Jackmanís Vincent; the most Australian Australian that ever Australianed.  With his khaki shorts, omnipresent rugby ball, tendency toward loutish, violent behaviour, and most stunningly, his mullet; his isnít just a nationality, itís an identity, a uniform, a walking stereotype.  Iím not sure why such an obvious sight gag should fit into this film, but of Chappieís many odd choices, at least itís amusing.  Not so much the ham-fisted commentary Blomkamp seeks to make with VincentĎs religious leanings.  Lazily written, thereís only enough to make it clear that Vincentís Christian piety is the reason why heís an ultra-right-wing Luddite on a one-man Crusade against science, but nothing more.  Sigourney Weaver plays the head of the security company, which in Vincentís eyes, threatens to place science and artificial intelligence over humanity.  Again, hers is another undeveloped character.  Blomkamp does have an eye for special effects filming as the CGI-generated Chappie moves seamlessly in the real world and Blomkampís action sequences are well-shot, if somewhat repetitive, resembling those of his previous two features.

Itís been reported of late that Neill Blomkamp has been working the heck out of social media in his attempt to sway favour toward his helming a new Alien chapter (I wondered aloud to Sigourney Weaver last week whether that desire mightíve had something to do with her casting, and she replied, ďNo, I donít think so.Ē).  With Chappie, we see the trajectory of his filmmaking spiral straight downward.  If there was any real discussion of Blomkamp directing Alien, that should stop right now.  Heís not mature enough as a filmmaker to take the reins, and certainly not if he means to write the story and screenplay himself.  While he might have an eye for special effects and action, Chappieís ridiculous mess of script is all the answer anyone needs as to why Blomkamp should be kept far from the Alien franchise.

Modern fairy tale, futuristic vision of sci-fi dystopia, morality play, or dark comedy; like the identity crisis of the robotic creation in his own movie, Blomkamp suffers from not quite knowing what he wants Chappie to be and cannot render a cohesive enough script to figure it out.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 6th, 2015

 

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