Remember last week’s discussion about the difference between entertaining movies and good movies? Neill Blomkamp has given us another example to work with in “Chappie.”
On a purely emotional, gut level, “Chappie” does everything it sets out to. It is moving, funny, exciting and gut-wrenching. Taken purely from that point of view, “Chappie” is virtually a must-see film. However, when looked at critically, with an eye for both the art of storytelling and technique of filmmaking, “Chappie” is a bit of a mess.
“Chappie” opens on Deon Wilson (a sadly underused Dev Patel), an engineer for Tetravaal, a South Africa-based robotics firm. Tetravaal has recently created the world’s first all-automated police force — called “Scouts” — for the city of Johannesburg, and lead designer Deon is the company’s golden boy. For his next trick, he has been working from home on perfecting the world’s first true artificial intelligence and — after a bit of back story on the film’s part — he finally perfects the algorithm. After having his request for a Scout to put into his AI program is rebuffed by Tetravaal’s CEO (Sigourney Weaver), Deon goes rogue, swiping the battered chassis of a Scout that has been designated for destruction. On his way home with his stolen goods, Deon is kidnapped by a trio of J-berg gangsters who want to use Deon’s Scout as firepower for a heist they need to pull.
That is when the movie hits its stride — for a while, anyway. Deon’s AI program doesn’t fire up as a fully realized, intelligent operating system, ala Scarlett Johansson in Spike Jonze’s “Her.” Instead, Chappie is born like a child: timid, trusting and an intellectual blank slate. It is that single creative decision by Blomkamp that keeps “Chappie” from being a total failure. The innocent, vulnerable, child-like Chappie (voiced almost to perfection by Sharlto Copley) is the only emotional attachment the audience has to the film, but for an hour or more, that connection is a devastating one.
From a storytelling standpoint, the biggest problem with the film comes in the form of Hugh Jackman. It is not that Jackman does anything particularly egregious with his performance, rather that his character is terrible. Jackman plays Vincent Moore, an ex-military man and another employee of Tetravaal. While Deon was creating the Scouts, Vincent was working on the Moose, a larger, bulkier, more military-grade robot designed to be remotely controlled by a human pilot. But at the film’s opening, it is clear that the Scouts have won. The human Johannesburg cops love them, crime is way down, and nobody is interested in the Moose program. So from the beginning, Vincent is a character with no traditional engineering experience working on a project that nobody wants and that Tetravaal is not interested in funding anymore. He is a useless cog and exists purely because the story needed a comically over-the-top bad guy. At one point, he even physically accosts Deon at his desk and threatens him with a gun before laughing it off as a joke and returning to his desk. Tetravaal has the worst HR department in the world.
All of these pieces collide in the third act where the film turns decidedly more violent, and the storytelling becomes, sadly, more lazy. Ultimately, the film sets itself up for an ending that could have erased all the bad will and given the story a finish that was satisfying in spite of itself. Blomkamp, however, decides to blow past that ending and continue on to a “happier” one that is much less satisfying.
I wanted to love “Chappie.” And for about 90 minutes, I actually did. But in the end, “Chappie” misses the mark in a couple of very important ways, and that is sad to see. CV