Film (2015). Columbia Pictures, Media Rights Capital, LStar Capital. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Cast includes Jose Pablo Cantillo, Jason Cope, Sharlto Copley, Hugh Jackman, Die Antwoords Ninja, Dev Patel, Yo-Landi Visser, Sigourney Weaver. 120 minutes. Colour.
Chappie is a remake of Neill Blomkamp's twenty-minute short film Tetra Vaal (2004), which was his first release, and expands upon the earlier movie's open channelling of Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop, though neither of Blomkamp's homages manage to retain the earlier director's Satirical message: that the true enemy is not screen Villains: that the true enemy is the one who eliminates his opponents in the corporate court intrigues whose outcome determines the fate of Detroit. A similar failure actually to describe the modern world, over and beyond some ultimately harmless potshots at the Media Landscape, similarly defangs Blomkamp's District 9 (2009), which also channels a detoothed understanding of Verhoeven.
There are differences, all the same, between Chappie and its transgressive parent. This time round an entire squad of Robot cops is discovered policing the mean streets of Johannesburg (not Detroit); and although both urbanscapes seem very similar – each roughed up by the use of seemingly grabbed hand-helds in order to get intimate with the human and inanimate detritus typical of an almost fatally dysfunctional city – Johannesburg itself seems inhabited almost solely by trigger-happy gangs dwelling in ordure with tattoos. Working for Tetravaal (the name of the evil corporation this time round) are the same two scientist Clichés featured in RoboCop: naive Dean Wilson (Patel), a geek working to make Tetravaal's robot cops into fully functioning AIs; and his Machiavellian opponent Vincent Moore (Jackman), who has developed a monstrous Mecha, and needs to trick his boss Michelle Bradley (Weaver) (grossly underused) into financing his grotesque development. One of Wilson's cops is damaged in a raid on an abortive drug trade; the film's other human protagonists – Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a dysfunctional quasi-family sleeping rough in an abandoned factory – must lie low. Despite their surreal cackhandedness, at times evocative of the cast of John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974), they manage to be persuaded by Wilson that he may be able to help them, and do not therefore torture him excessively during in his ultimately successful attempt to insert a tabula rasa mentality into the damaged droid, the result being Chappie (Copley), a CGI figure created through motion-capture. The gang-family hopes to use Chappie to rescue them from the consequences of the bad drug deal, but first he must grow up
We cannot be surprised that the infant AI learns exceedingly fast; that he is literal-minded; that he is essentially Good; and that he obeys real folk. As it clearly Blomkamp's and his co-author wife Terri Tatchell's intention that Chappie should warm our hearts, it is also perhaps unsurprising that Copley seems to be channelling the reputedly adorable C-3PO from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977): it may even be the case that the makers of this film do not understand that "mincing" effeminacy is no longer a safe target, even for "good-hearted" fun. In the meantime, Wilson has persuaded Yolandi, with whom he has fallen in love, to have her mind copied.
The action unpacks as expected in a film so devoted to its antecedents. There is a lot of action. The villain's mecha causes chaos all over Johannesburg. Tetravaal is destroyed. Yolandi is killed (but lives again, as a fembot). A nice small intimate film is lost in the entrails of Chappie, though a few free-floating moments of genuine sentiment do pry themselves free, and a thought or two about the nature of the soul is aired. And the visuals are stunning. But in the end the film lacks more than rudimentary grammar. Perhaps because nobody paid any attention to what Verhoeven actually had to say about the world, this time round the anxiety of his influence was fatal to Uncle Tom Chappie and all. [JC]
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