Sunday, March 15, 2015

Chappie

Alternate Title:  Robocop: The Existentialist Cut

One sentence synopsis:    An engineer at a South African robotics company tries to train an experimental sentient robot alongside a group of local gangsters.


Things Havoc liked:  Though there are weeks when the choice is obvious, it's usually something of a gamble picking movies for this little project. As I've mentioned many-a-time, I don't consult reviews, critics, or word of mouth (where possible), relying instead only on the trailers I see from previous films, and on gut intuition. Given that I am a man of great probity and judgment, this has led to nothing but great success, as movies such as Under the Skin, To Rome with Love, Red Tails, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green can attest to. Nevertheless, despite all these manifest successes, there are still moments, particularly in Doldrums Season, that could shatter the calm of lesser men. One such occasion presented itself this week, as the big release of the weekend was a film I had more cause than most to fear, for it was a film from South African sci-fi director Neill Blomkamp, whose early success with District Nine led me right into a bear trap when it came to 2013's worst movie of the year, a putrid exercise in shameless, color-coded moralizing called Elysium. Generally a director who produced something that bad would never be permitted to darken my evenings again, and yet I was encouraged by the fact that among the very few critics who had the gall to savage Elysium was Blomkamp himself, who gave interviews in which he described it as a failure of writing and script, a movie that "got away from him". And so with that in mind, when the trailers for his latest film began to appear, I decided ultimately to give Blomkamp one more shot, if only because each subsequent trailer seemed to be from a completely different film, and I wanted eventually to see whether Blomkamp was, as each one indicated, making a modern version of Robocop, of Short Circuit, or of Elysium itself.

The answer? All of the above.

Chappie is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, and a quick glance through my back catalog should suffice to illustrate just what a statement that is. Part coming of age story, part sci fi action extravaganza, part transhumanist science fiction piece, it is a mishmash of a thousand disparate elements strung together by a director who seems to have had five different ideas for movies and smashed all of them together until they fit. On paper this is the sort of thing that disasters are made of, and yet the pieces Blomkamp is playing with are so hypnotically strange on their own, that the result is unlike almost anything I can recall.

What do I mean? Well let's start with the cast, not the established actors like Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, or Sigourney Weaver, all of whom are very good at what they're doing here, but none of whom are the point. The point are guys like Ninja, yes Ninja, a South African rapper and experimental musician who plays... well... himself in this movie, except it's some kind of alternate version of himself in a world where he became a machine-gun-toting gangster engaged in teaching a robot how to be cool. I have no idea who this guy is in reality, but the film version of him is cracked out as though he decided to complement the old stock character of the borderline-crazy gangster by actually being crazy. Sequences in which he teaches the robot in question to throw ninja stars, shoot guns "straight" (gangster-standards apply), or strut about in a 'cool' fashion really kind of defy description in terms of how they set the scene. Given that he's sharing the screen during these sequences with, alternately, Dev Patel's earnest sincerity (Dev Patel's trademark, it's increasingly apparent), a fourteen-foot armored death machine, and an animatronic police robot covered in bling who calls him daddy, Ninja's absurd presence in the film actually doesn't feel that out of place, and he renders the movie, if nothing else, highly interesting to watch whenever he's on the screen.

Not that Blomkamp has much trouble on that front though. Even when making crap like Elysium, Blomkamp's eye for cinematography, design, and effect are top notch, and they remain so in this go-round. Blomkamp's trademark is "futurist underclass", a philosophy similar to that of Paul Verhoeven (before he lost his mind and made Showgirls that is), showcasing the intersection of ultra-high-technology with a gritty, duct-tape-and-baling-wire sensibility from criminals and social outcasts living in the crumbling ruins of immense, crime-ridden cities. It's a style that demands incredibly convincing VFX work, and Chappie is, fortunately, the recipient of some of the best I've ever seen, from the overall look and feel of the many robots, humanoid or otherwise, that grace the screen, each of which is filled with wondrous detail and a sense of real weight and force behind their movements, to Chappie himself, motion-captured by long-time Blomkamp collaborator, Sharlto Copley, who also provides the voice for the titular robot. Chappie's integration into the film is so complete it makes Golum look like the the CGI from Catwoman, with visual effects so absolutely convincing, so utterly devoid of "showcase" moments to drag you out of the film, that despite all rational evidence to the contrary, I actually thought the robot was done animatronicly with practical effects, and only realized how impossible that was in retrospect based on what they have the thing actually do. The titleholder for Best Effects rotates frequently in movies, I know, but Chappie's are so good, and fit so well into the grungy, lived-in design of the world, that even with all the superhero, fantasy, and sci fi extravaganzas with which I am regularly presented, it stood out almost effortlessly. I'd make a joke here about how Weta Digital, the effects company created by Peter Jackson for the Lord of the Rings has finally been upstaged, but it turns out they were the ones responsible for Chappie as well.

Oh but there's more to the look of a film than the digital effects, and Blomkamp, who has always been a visual director, is at the top of his game here. Chappie is not a film entirely full of action, but like Robocop before it, the movie is capable of staggering, bloody violence at the drop of a hat, filmed in gorgeous, lush long-takes amply supplied with slow motion sequences at just the right moment. Several of the best sequences come (as is only reasonable) near the end of the film, done in unbroken, quasi-handheld shots that never veer into shakycam, but showcase the rampages of characters allowed, at last, to cut loose. Buttressing everything is a glorious choral-electric score, featuring the music of the aforementioned Ninja and his collaborators alongside more traditional fare from Hans Zimmer himself.


Things Havoc disliked:  So far so good, a far-out concept, actors who vary from the well-established to the utterly weird, a design that stands out, and effects that back it up. So where exactly do we run into problems? Well... let's talk about the script.

Elysium fell apart because it was generally terrible, but diving into the precise reasons, the issue was the script, a sanctimonious, bloviating, ignorant take on immigration policies in general, and my abiding fear from the trailers was that Blomkamp was going to do to Ferguson and the associated police scandals what he did in Elysium to the immigration question. Fortunately, that fear proved entirely unfounded, but less fortunately, the reason it was unfounded was that Chappie is not really about any one thing in particular, but about eighteen things smashed together to form a movie, from transhumanism to police militarization, to pedagogic theory, machine sentience, and brain digitization, all in a movie that's clearly also supposed to have time to be funny and touching. It's a tall order for any script, and the result is basically a complete mess, as the movie gyrates wildly from one concept, tone, and feel to another, dragging whiplashed characters along in its wake, until by the end we have things happening that have never once been established through means that make no sense within the context of the film. Among the many, many plot contrivances that come to mind, one of the few that does not involve a spoiler is a helmet, designed to allow direct brain interface with computer systems, an extrapolation of technologies existent today that allow a computer to literally read someone's mind. All well and good, but by the end of the movie we have the sentient robot itself using this system in an attempt to upload its own consciousness, apparently unaware (as are the filmmakers) that this sort of thing uses brainwaves to interpret the thoughts of the wearer, something a robot is unlikely to be producing in any quantity.

But it's not so much a matter of this nitpick or that one, and just a general sense of confusion that reigns throughout the film. Ninja's counterpart, both in this movie and in reality, is Yolandi Visser, who like Ninja basically plays herself, but unlike him, does not seem to have much of a character in the film beyond what's absolutely necessary at any given moment. At one point a hard-bitten gangster who casually suggests shooting Dev Patel's feet off if he doesn't help them hack the police robots, at another point a motherly nurturer who reads picture books to the newly-awakened robot and who teaches him to address her as "mommy" (a shiruken-flinging combat robot ripping walls and armored cars apart while screaming angry invective about "mommy" is only one of the many surreal things we get to see in this film). I don't object to a complex character with disparate qualities, the best characters in film are usually exactly that. But Yolanda is mired in a movie that whirlwinds about from concept to concept, which doesn't let us get any sense of her holistically. She simply is whatever the filmmakers want her to be at a given moment, with no sense that all of these attributes are coming from the same person. Other characters, including Ninja himself, Hugh Jackman's military-industrial schemer, and a skeeving crime boss played by South African television star Brandon Auret, all undergo similar gyrations, as the plot convulses around them, changing its mind mid-stream about what the movie is actually about, until by the end, we've seemingly lost track of the fact that we were originally talking about the invention of a sentient robot, a character we are presumably intended to identify with at least somewhat, but who, like everyone else in the film, is not allowed to establish itself for more than five minutes before becoming something else entirely. In the case of the robot, that's probably a plot point. In the case of the humans, I have to blame the script.


Final thoughts:   My greatest fear regarding Chappie was that it would resemble Elysium, and on that score, Blomkamp manages to pass with flying colors, as Chappie not only fails to resemble Blomkamp's previous picture, but also doesn't resemble damn near anything I've ever seen before. Indeed, so strange, so left-fieldish is this deceptively-simple movie that the closest point of comparison I have is the work of Darren Aronofsky, whose life's mission seems to be to take as many simple ideas as he can and produce as much surreal insanity as possible with them. Chappie's weirdness is not openly Feliniesque (as Aronofsky's often is), but more a matter of a director pushing the envelope until it falls off the table, and yet I'll be damned if there isn't something almost hypnotic about the result. The film makes little-to-no sense when sat down and thought about, but the experience of watching it is not something I'm at risk of forgetting soon, and like Aronofsky's 2014 version of Noah, it manages, whatever its flaws, to avoid being boring, predictable, or even sane.

Chappie, as it turns out, is presently being torn to pieces by the same critics who praised Elysium for being bold and daring, and it would be uncharitable of me to ascribe that to the fact that Chappie isn't as sanctimoniously preachy as Blomkamp's last effort. Their objections to the film's confusion, lack of consistent motivations, and overloading with too many plots (to say nothing of glaring product placement from Sony and Redbull) are similar enough to my own that I'm not going to object, and yet... if I'm being honest, the overall effect of Chappie is less trainwreck, and more awe. Chappie doesn't really work, but in failing it produces something quite unique, as if Blomkamp reached for the stars and only caught a satellite. Technically this wasn't what he was going for (I think), but it's still a fairly impressive achievement nonetheless. And if I'm being completely honest with myself, I have to say that for all the confusion and madness (or perhaps because of it), I enjoyed watching this movie, What else matters, really, besides that?

Ultimately, Chappie almost defies criticism, as the movie is plainly the work of a man who only knew what he was doing about two thirds of the time. One can like the result, or dislike it, but to argue that mistakes were made in producing it is kind of missing the point. The entire effort was a grand, glorious mistake. Take from it what you will.


Final Score:  7/10


Next Time:  Action of some form, be it old or new.  Or maybe it's time to visit Bollywood...

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