Tuesday, March 10, 2015

In Theaters: CHAPPIE (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Jason Cope, Johnny Selema, Maurice Carpede. (R, 120 mins)

When DISTRICT 9 opened to rave reviews in 2009 and eventually landed a Best Picture Oscar nomination, it appeared as if South African writer/director and Peter Jackson protege Neill Blomkamp, making his feature debut, was going to be the next major name in sci-fi/fantasy cinema. His long-delayed sophomore effort ELYSIUM bowed in summer 2013 to mixed reviews and has seen its reputation plummet in the ensuing year and a half. ELYSIUM was heavy-handed in its politicizing, but flaws and all, it generally worked for me, and it's entirely possible that the scorn it received was just a matter of balancing out some of the overabundance of praise heaped on DISTRICT 9--a fine film, but one with plenty of its own problems. It was a situation reminiscent of Neil Marshall, feted as horror's latest wunderkind after THE DESCENT in 2005, but whose 2008 follow-up DOOMSDAY, an entertaining, John Carpenter and George Miller-inspired mix tape of '80s cult action and horror, ended up being an expensive flop dismissed and despised by fans who just didn't seem to get it. Not to sound all "haters gonna hate," but I'm still not sure what the DOOMSDAY audiences wanted that Marshall failed to deliver. The situation is similar to what Blomkamp got with ELYSIUM: some gripes and complaints that snowballed into a borderline irrational pile-on.

If anything might retroactively win over the ELYSIUM haters, it's Blomkamp's latest film CHAPPIE, the kind of misbegotten disaster that would derail a career in decades past. CHAPPIE is the work of a filmmaker who's bought into entirely too much of his own press, an agonizingly self-indulgent misfire that manages to get almost everything appallingly wrong. The tone of the film changes from scene to scene: sometimes it's a hyper-violent action movie, then it's practically a kiddie movie, then hopelessly maudlin, then stacked with half-assed political and religious subtext. Like its protagonist, Blomkamp seems to have the attention-span of a little kid, with the bulk of CHAPPIE coming off like a remake of ROBOCOP starring Johnny Five from SHORT CIRCUIT, and after cribbing from everything from BLADE RUNNER to PINOCCHIO, Blomkamp finally cashes out and ends up ripping off himself by turning it into a revamp of DISTRICT 9 with robots. There's precious little to praise and there's no way to sugarcoat it: CHAPPIE is incredibly and aggressively terrible.

An expansion of Blomkamp's 2004 short film TETRA VAAL, CHAPPIE is set a few years in the future in a Johannesburg that looks almost like a crime-plagued wasteland. In 2016, the government authorized the use of "Scouts," police robots designed and programmed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), an engineer with the Halliburton-like Tetravaal Corporation. The Scouts have drastically reduced the crime rate, driving the company's stock through the roof, making Wilson the golden boy of Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). That doesn't go over well with Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), another Tetravaal engineer whose own militarized security program--giant ED-209-like war robots controlled via neural transmitters and called "Moose"--has its funding almost completely eliminated in favor of the Scouts. Wilson has been working on a program that creates a thinking consciousness in the Scouts, allowing them to form opinions and appreciate the finer things in life. Wilson's proposal is instantly rejected by the bottom-line-driven Bradley (one of the few good lines in the film is an incredulous Bradley laughing in Wilson's face and saying "Do you realize you just came to the CEO of a publicly-traded weapons corporation and pitched a robot that can write poems?"), which doesn't stop him from stealing Scout unit #22, one that's constantly in the facility for repairs and has finally been so damaged that it's earned a spot on the scrap heap, to attempt to run the artificial intelligence program on it himself. That plan falls apart when Wilson is carjacked by a trio of criminals--Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), and Ninja and Yo-Landi, played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er of the South African rap group Die Antwoord--who targeted Wilson and hope to get him to reprogram the junked Scout so it can help them in some heists they need to engineer in order for Ninja to pay back the money he owes to scuzzy crime boss Hippo (Brandon Auret). Wilson runs the A.I. program and Chappie (voiced and motion-captured by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley) is essentially a helpless child who quickly finds his way, even calling Yo-Landi and Ninja "Mommy" and "Daddy" respectively.

It's a hokey concept at best that never properly channels its excess of uneven tones in an orderly or coherent fashion. Chappie looks like a cute robot, with antennae that resemble bunny ears, but who thought it was a good idea to put a kiddie-looking robot in an R-rated action movie with copious F-bombs and graphic violence? CHAPPIE goes straight downhill when Ninja and Amerika teach Chappie to be "gangster," as the sentient Scout spends the rest of the film strutting around with a cartoonish swagger, assorted bling (like a gold chain that reads "Hustler"), and a "$" spray-painted on his helmet, and calling people "fuckmother." Perhaps it's meant to be funny--the audience was laughing out loud when Chappie suddenly commandeers Wilson's van for a car chase--but the rest of the film isn't. Weaver is appropriately bitch-on-wheelsy as the tough CEO, but she can play that role in her sleep, while Jackman has what it takes to make a formidable villain but his character makes no sense at all, and I'm not just referring to his pointless mullet. Moore is said to be ex-military, but he's a scientist who wears cargo shorts to work and carries a gun in a holster even when he's in the office at his cubicle. He assaults Wilson--smacking him in the head with the gun--in the office in front of everyone and goes back to his desk, with no consequences. And when a security team is sent out to find the renegade Chappie, it's Moore who's leading the assault unit. What is his job, exactly? And how does he expect to get away with switching the entire Scout patrol offline, sending Johannesburg into violent, anarchic chaos as a way to convince Bradley that it's time to unleash the Moose, when he sabotages the program from his own lab, via his own computer, using his own password?

Despite being the best-known cast members, Jackman, Weaver, and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE's Patel all have supporting roles as Blomkamp inexplicably makes the criminal trio the de facto leads. Ninja and Vi$$er have more screen time than anyone, and while Copley's vocal performance is as annoying as many of his recent acting turns, it's the Die Antwoord duo who earn the top acting dishonors. A little of these two goes a long way, and Blomkamp grants them entirely too much wiggle room. It's one thing to have their songs throughout the film, and another to have them playing characters who share their own names, but why is Ninja wearing a Ninja shirt with his own image and "Die Antwoord" on it? I can see that kind of self-aggrandizing nonsense happening in a no-budget Albert Pyun movie where Big Pun plays a gangsta wearing a Big Pun shirt, but here? And Yo-Landi's bedroom--the criminals live in what looks like a partially demolished building--has Die Antwoord publicity shots all over the wall. If Blomkamp is a Die Antwoord superfan and wants to hang with them, that's great. But putting them front and center in a $50 million Hollywood movie--surprisingly low-budget by today's standards--is distracting stunt-casting at its most ill-conceived. Blomkamp presumably learned his lesson, as reports surfaced that Ninja was nothing short of an abrasive, uncooperative asshole during production--clashing the most with Cantillo, a veteran, professional actor--prompting Blomkamp to retool the script to reduce Ninja's role and the need for his presence on set. By the end of the shoot, Blomkamp reached his breaking point with Ninja and was quoted as saying "I don't ever want to be in the same room with him again." Frankly, the idea of Blomkamp and Ninja having a combative Werner Herzog-Klaus Kinski working relationship is fascinating. Let's hope some behind-the-scenes meltdowns were caught by the making-of crew, because that's certain to be better than anything that ended up in CHAPPIE. It's difficult to ascertain right now if Blomkamp is a one-trick pony just three films in, but CHAPPIE is so alarmingly bad that perhaps we should hold off on getting too excited about his being handed the ALIEN franchise.

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