Hugh Jackman has made a career – quite a great one at this juncture – out of stretching. Considering the bodybuilding regimen he goes through every time he is fitted with his X-Men claws, he may well be the most apt thespian when it comes to the art of stretching: stretching his body to the very outskirts of believability when he beefs up and veins out to play tough-guy Wolverine; stretching his vocal range to the stratosphere in an attempt to keep up with the angelic high notes that reverberate to this day from Colm Wilkinson’s take on Jean Valjean belting “Bring Him Home.” Only Jackman could have taken on both those roles in the same year, and worn a ballsack prosthetic on his chin, and still made it out with a viable film career.
How odd it is then that Jackman has never seemed more lost than in Chappie– the third feature film, most definitely not the charm, from South African director Neill Blomkamp – playing a non-singing human with no claws and no testicles covering his neck. As a rather ordinary engineer with a silly haircut and an unfortunate predilection for short shorts, Jackman has a simple emotion to convey – jealousy – but comes off such a grotesque for Chappie’s entire runtime that he doesn’t seem so much driven to madness by envy as possessed by an ancient Lovecraftian totem of envy that boils his blood and turns him unwittingly into a sociopathic, imperialist asshole. Jackman’s Vincent Moore is everything that makes his prized robot MOOSE such an unwieldy sell to the Johannesburg police department – big, clunking, a blunt force instrument when something with finesse is required.
This falls completely on Blomkamp since Jackman has already given cinema one of its more iconic portrayals of jealousy gone off the rails in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
Blomkamp was, after the phenomenal success of District 9, hailed as a potential blockbuster auteur, in the vein of mentor Peter Jackson and of Nolan, but Elysium dampened the enthusiasm of most (though I found it emotionally effecting) and Chappie has euthanized that enthusiasm in all but a hearty few. It is a film full of miscalculations – not just Jackman’s lunkheaded antagonist, but rappers Yolandi and Ninja from Die Antwoord as gangsters whom Chappie comes to see as his adopted parents (and who eventually reciprocate that feeling), and Dev Patel, who is initially quite able in his role as a passionate scientist who unlocks artificial intelligence, but who, in lockstep with Jackman’s rival engineer, loses his ever-loving mind.
Pretty much the only significant player who comes out of this looking alright (and no Sigourney Weaver is not significant enough in Chappie’s world to merit that distinction) is the only other human on the planet whose stock has dropped more precipitously since District 9 – that film’s star and Blomkamp’s muse/friend Sharlto Colpey. Since playing Wikus van der Merwe, Copley has been wonderful in a film no one saw, Europa Report, and has been awful in everything else – Elysium, A-Team, the new show Powers, and especially Maleficent. He is an overactor and scenery chewer par excellence.
Looking for Copley shouting manically in Chappie but can’t find him anywhere? It’s because he IS Chappie. Chappie was performed by Copley on set and voiced by Copley. It’s not quite a motion capture performance, as it didn’t involve those funny little ping pong balls capturing movement – instead Copley was erased by animators and completely replaced with the Chappie design – but its a similar idea. It lacks the facial nuance of a Serkis performance, since Chappie’s expressiveness is limited to pixel eyes, but on the whole, the character of Chappie, essentially an advanced baby born into the worst circumstances and learning the ropes, comes off pretty well.
It’s the maelstrom that Chappie sets in motion by gaining sentience that makes little sense. Essentially we find ourselves in a South Africa policed by Robocops – a South Africa so comfortable with robot officers, in fact, that a cyborg isn’t even needed to convince people of these machine’s human touch. They’re totally fine. They do exactly what they say they’re going to do; they reduce crime. The only people who don’t like them are criminals like Ninja and Yolandi. (And Vincent Moore, because he’s an asshole.) Patel’s Deon Wilson, their designer, is an undisputed hero/savior/all-around-good-guy.
Deon and Vincent work under Michelle Bradley (Weaver) at Tetravaal, the company that manufactures the robots. Chappie is just one of many robots; he (or, really, “it,” at that point) just happens to be out of commission on the day Deon Frankenstein needs a corpse to bring TO LIFE! This is the first of many irresponsible things Deon does in response to what seem like perfectly rational concerns from his CEO, who is essentially ruined by two rogue employees who don’t listen to her reasonable edicts and, in blindly striving for their opposite goals, bring down a life-saving infrastructure and throw a metropolis into chaos. If this is supposed to be an anti-corporate movie, it’s a failure.
It is the story of two petulant geniuses ruining something good for everyone around them, and it helps little that one of the geniuses (the more sympathetic party) made that environment possible in the first place. He is throwing away a corps of soulless but utterly competent robots for the dream of a machine with a soul. A machine that can learn, form its own opinions, and appreciate and create art. We’re supposed to see Bradley as out of touch because she fails to see the romance (or the profits) in this concept, which means that this may very well be the very first movie that not only isn’t at least somewhat worried about what might happen if we created AI – it unabashedly thinks that even an AI that’s been cast out in a desolate ghetto, firebombed, and relieved of an arm would still be a benevolent if slightly foul-mouthed friend – but doesn’t even realize that some people, for good reason, might have reservations.
The only true anti-AI voice is that of Vincent, and his hatred of Artificial Intelligence is not given even a lick of credence. As we come to find out, it’s really just that he doesn’t want a robot out there that he can’t control, making him the last man you want controlling a massive robot. Once he is let loose and put in control of the MOOSE, he shows it wasn’t Deon’s fame or respect he was after, though surely there is some part of him that was upset that his job was “outsourced to an Indian.” Vincent just wanted to the ability to sit comfortably in chair while blowing away people he doesn’t deem human – gangsters, minorities, rival engineers. He is giddy with power. If this prick having the keys to a killing machine is the alternative, AI seems just peachy.
So peachy that, by the end of the film, it is proposed as not just a beautiful thing in and of itself but (major spoiler ahead) as an alternative to death! Vincent happened to invent a neural scanner which Chappie, after a few minutes of learning how computers work, retrofits into a consciousness transfer machine. It is meant only for him, but when Deon is fatally wounded in the film’s climactic battle and Yolandi is killed, Chappie manages to find them robot bodies (this film suggests that a helmet, simply by sitting atop their heads, could scan brainwaves from Yolandi and Chappie, in spite of the fact that their heads are frightfully dissimilar, noth inside and out, so, GREAT HELMET). To be clear: the souls of humans were captured by a helmet and turned into computer code, and now that code resides in the body of a robot, evolving of its own volition. Is this new code-soul really Deon? Is Code-Soul-Deon existentially terrified to be a machine? Chappie doesn’t care: not dying is not dying, and we are ordered to be happy that some piece of Deon and Yolandi remain.
Chappie, a quite realistic looking robot, may not visually trigger our Uncanny Valley sensors (those alarms that tell us the dead-eyed kids in Polar Express are creepy), but here, existentially, it sets off an Uncanny Valley fire. Chappie takes the mad scientist crown from Deon because he is so afraid of the concept of death that he now gives life. Or “life,” it’s tough to tell.
Chappie is terrified of death for two reasons: everyone is always lying to him and manipulating him and he is the most poorly constructed corporate machine ever.
The entire film relies on two completely idiotic conceits. The first is the rivalry between Ninja and Deon. Ninja has himself a police robot he can control and wants to raise his baby robot to be a carjacking thug. Deon believes that Chappie was created for a higher purpose than this, pretty much on the basis that Deon created him and doesn’t like carjacking. Chappie is caught between his Maker, who makes him promise not to commit crimes, and his Daddy (Ninja), who lies and tells him the things he’s doing aren’t crimes… They’re fun games! The people are just sleeping when you throw ninja stars at their throat lil Chap! Literally every interaction sees the same sequence of events play out: Chappie is reluctant to get involved because his Maker made him promise not to eat the apple in the garden of Eden, and the snake convinces him its not really an apple, its a persimmon.
Eventually Chappie is won over to the dark side (turning into an impetuous teenage robot who won’t to talk to Maker or Daddy) when he begins wrestling with Idiotic Conceit #2: Chappie’s battery will die in 5 days…
But wait, can’t the battery be replaced?
No, it is melded to the carapace or something. Chappie’s battery will die in 5 days…
But can’t the battery be recharged at some recharging statio…
NO!! CHAPPIE’S BATTERY WILL DIE IN FIVE DAYS!!!
So either Tetravaal is making disposable robots that they scrap once the battery runs out (in which case, I take it back. Michelle Bradley is a horrible CEO), or no one thinks to tell Chappie that batteries can be recharged. Either way, it puts a ticking clock on the movie that feels urgent but fake. It forces Chappie to wrestle with big ideas, but in a way that feels contrived.
He is just coming to terms with his crisis when a big robot drops out of the sky and forces his hand anyway; he has to use his consciousness transfer machine on everyone. Dramatically, its inert. Literally every roadblock that’s set up is overcome only a moment later. What’s that, there’s only one robot body to use between Deon and Chappie, forcing Chappie to save his Maker rather than himself?! No prob, Chappie remote connects to a body not even a minute later. Even Yolandi’s death is so short-lived that her resurrection seems abrupt. (Sorry third gangster that’s not in the rap group Die Antwoord, you weren’t important enough for Chappie to lovingly capture your brainwaves on a flash drive, so you’ll just have to stay brutally murdered.)
There are occasional moments of subdued thoughtfulness in Chappie, though they rarely have much to do with the overarching narrative. One scene in particular sticks out: a police captain thoughtfully rejects Vincent’s MOOSE, which the police force simply does not need or want, while stuffing his face with the food that Tetravaal is providing him. There’s implied corruption, or at least gluttony, involved here, but, looking at the bigger picture, the Johannesberg police department and Michelle Bradley have entered into a mutually beneficial relationship that seems to harm nobody until two cowboy engineers get into a pissing match. So what is exactly is Blomkamp trying to say about the police? Maybe he’s trying to comment on the JoBerg of today (and in the Die Antwoord sections, he most certainly is as he readily embraces their “zef” aesthetic) but as a sci-fi director, he has to play be the rules of the world he set up. The police may be lazy bums, but by backing up a force of incorruptible robots, they are lazy bums that are saving city.
A similar thing happens in the storybook scene (lifted pretty heinously from the AI Pinnochio scene, but hey who’s complaining), where Yolandi reads a bedtime story about a black sheep and explains to Chappie what it means to be a black sheep. Okay, so Chappie’s a black sheep… in comparison to whom exactly? Outside of Vincent, and some street kids who throw Molotov cocktails at him (after Ninja abandons him in a ploy to toughen him up, which is JUST the worst idea ever), Chappie is never in contact with anyone who misunderstands him or casts him out for being different. Maybe if he’d tried to fir in with his other robots and realized how different they were, or if he’d tried more readily to assimilate into human society, this might apply. But as it is, it seems to apply more to Yolandi than Chappie. There’s a romance surrounding the ghoetto-chic “zef” lifestyle Yolandi and Ninja are living in their grafitti-covered abandoned warehouse that I think we’re supposed to see as misunderstood. I think to the majority of American audiences, though, it will remain just that: misunderstood.
It’s tough to tell exactly what Blomkamp was thinking casting the rappers as themselves (literally, they appear to actually be playing Yolandi and Ninja of the hip-hop collective Die Antwoord who just happen to need to steal cars for money; they even wear their own merchandise and Ninja mourns Yolandi by wearing a Yolandi shirt), but whatever that thought was, it doesn’t translate well. With District 9, whatever may have been lost in translation was forgiven, because an apartheid allegory is one we will all work to meet halfway. Here, some of the allegory seems hyperspecific to some things going on JoBerg that the decidedly odd (and that’s not an insult, Ninja and Yolandi know they look odd and they love it) features of the rappers-turned-actors fails to convey.
But who am I to complain? Overall, they accord themselves well, and, strange haircuts and face tattoos and all, they far outclass one of 21st century cinema’s most stable presences (and one of the sexiest men alive), Hugh Jackman, who makes Jodie Foster in Elysium look thoroughly understated and ordinary by comparison. Blomkamp has a heavy hand when it comes to antagonists and his direction of action is often too slick; thankfully, on his next film, Alien 5, his antagonist can be as bigoted, mean, and jerkish as he wants. It’ll help that the Alien won’t talk, of course.