Silver Screen: Chappie *
In the new sci-fi/action/drama/comedy/somethingoranother Chappie, director Neill Blomkamp boldly imagines what it would be like if science fiction was no fun whatsoever and everyone had a stupid haircut.
Blomkamp showed great promise with the heavy-handed but inventive District Nine, then seemed to take a bit of a wrong turn with the even more blunt, joyless Elysium. The latter was like watching a college sophomore play Halo while he talks about politics. Chappie is another confounding misstep that makes you wonder if District Nine was more fluke than harbinger.
Chappie is paradoxically both simple and impossible to describe.
The simple way is: It’s Short Circuit meets Robocop. It doesn’t just resemble these two movies, it’s almost a perfect fifty/fifty split. Chappie, like Short Circuit’s 1980s-tastic robot Johnny Five, is designed by the military-industrial complex for urban combat. He’s a program-driven killing machine until he’s damaged— Chappie takes a rocket to the chest, versus the bolt of lightning that causes Johnny Five to want to make love not war— and when he wakes up he’s been reprogrammed to have human emotions. When his makers decide they want Chappie back, they frame him as an excuse to launch their newest creation, a walking tank that happens to look exactly like the ED-209 from Robocop if Ted Nugent spray painted it camouflage.
That’s the easy part. The tricky part is describing what Blomkamp was going for exactly, aside from a commentary on mechanized/drone warfare that’s so old it’s literally the same one Short Circuit made in 1986. Tonally, it’s all over the map. Failed gags like a blinged-out Chappie learning the South African version of gangsta-speak indicate an attempt at levity, yet the movie is relentlessly cruel and dour. Chappie is tortured and terrorized for his entire miserable existence. As an action movie, it’s a faux-cerebral slog bookended by two pretty neat battle sequences. As a drama, it’s a race to the bottom to see which character you care about less, Dev Patel’s allegedly brilliant programmer who makes exclusively bad decisions, Hugh Jackman’s caricature of a right-wing villain, or the two grimy crooks who adopt Chappie, Ninja and Yolandi.
Jackman’s gun-crazed, mulleted Jesus freak is so over the top he’s hard to really hate. It’s Thunderdome castoffs Ninja and Yolandi who grate on the nerves the worst. They’re the humans with the most screentime, which they spend being loud and awful to themselves and everyone around them. It never even occurred to me I was supposed to like them until Blomkamp swerved into sentimentality in the final act. I also was unaware at the time that this unwatchable duo are the leaders of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord. I did wonder at the time why these two goofballs kept wearing Die Antwoord-branded clothing and at one point put a Die Antwoord sticker on Chappie, which is the perfect nexus of insane and insufferable. Wearing your own band merch in a futuristic sci-fi movie surely is sufficient to qualify for Douche of the Year 2015.
Being indescribable can be a film’s greatest asset. It’s difficult to concisely convey the experience of watching David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, or Richard Linklater’s Waking Life because their inventiveness defies categorization. Chappie is a baffling attempt to traverse genres without ever getting a single one of them right. It’s a movie straining for a unique aesthetic while relying on overfamiliar plotting. I can’t even really describe what Blomkamp seems to have wanted Chappie to be, but whatever it is definitely does not work.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.