Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Chappie

Chappie was written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and directed by Blomkamp. It's based on Blomkamp's 2004 short film Tetra Vaal.

Blomkamp and Tachell co-wrote 2009's District 9, which Blomkamp also directed. He also wrote and directed 2013's Elysium.

I enjoyed District 9 quite a bit, even though its "persecuted aliens as a metaphor for Apartheid" angle was pretty blatant. Elysium I liked much less, as it was a jumbled mess that used the same heavy-handed metaphor structure, this time for health care. Chappie falls somewhere in between.

Chappie is a very derivative film, blatantly lifting elements from Short CircuitRobocop (both versions!) and even Blomkamp's own District 9. Not surprisingly, it does little or nothing original with these cribbed elements.

I liked the Chappie character a lot, especially as he learns and goes from an infant to the equivalent of a confused teenager over the course of the movie. Too bad that's about the only competent part of the film. The script is absolutely riddled with more maddening plot holes than I've seen outside a Transformers movie. Fatal plot holes too— the kind that completely torpedo the story once you see them. It's almost like they filmed a treatment rather than an actual script. It definitely could have used a polish or twelve.

The film throws a ton of concepts at the screen— things such as morality and innocence, nature vs. nurture, the essence of consciousness, etc.— hoping at least one of them will stick. Unfortunately none of these lofty and complex notions is ever properly developed or given adequate screen time. Blomkamp seems much more interested in explosions and action set pieces than in examining the various concepts he brings up.

Finally, Blomkamp recently announced he's planning to film a sequel to ALIENS, which will ignore ALIEN3 and ALIEN: Resurrection. Given the ever-diminishing quality of the movies he's made since District 9, I'm not exactly excited by this news.


The Plot:
In the near future, the crime rate in Johannesburg is out of control, prompting the police department to utilize armored Scout droids. The Scouts, manufactured by the Tetravaal corporation, are a resounding success and dramatically reduce crime.

Meanwhile a trio of thugs named Ninja (played by Ninja), Yolandi (played by Yolandi Vi$$er) and Amerika need to quickly raise a large sum of cash to pay off a debt to a crime lord. They come up with the bright idea to invent a "remote" that could turn off the Scouts. That's actually a pretty good idea, but they don't have the know-how to make such a thing themselves.

Deon Wilson (played by Dev Patel) works for Tetravaal and is the head of the Scout program. He's such a genius that he creates a full-fledged artificial intelligence on his home computer in his spare time. For some reason he feels the need to upload this AI into a Scout instead of testing it on his computer in a controlled environment. He asks his boss Michelle Bradley (played by Sigourney Weaver) for a test droid, but she inexplicably says no. This unassuming nerd then steals a Scout from the factory's scrap heap and heads home with it for testing. 

Along the way Deon's kidnapped by Ninja and his gang, who want him to build a droid turner-offer. When he says that's impossible, they naturally threaten to kill him. He then uploads his AI into the scrap droid, causing it to instantly come to life. Deon warns them that the droid, now nicknamed "Chappie," is just a baby and needs to be taught. He also warns Ninja that Chappie's battery is fused to his torso and can't be removed, which gives him just five days of "life."

Ninja astonishingly sends Deon home (!) so he can train Chappie himself. Yolandi's motherly instincts kick in and she wants to nurture Chappie, while Ninja is impatient to use him for crime. Due to Deon's moral teachings, Chappie refuses to kill, so Ninja trains him to use knives and throwing stars. He takes him out on a couple of jobs, where Chappie becomes an effective criminal.

Back at Tetravaal, sullen bully, er, robotics engineer Vincent Moore (played by Hugh Jackman) is working on a human-controlled urban assault droid called Moose. When Bradley cuts his program in favor of the Scouts, he grows resentful and violent. He follows Deon and learns of Chappie and his AI. 

Determined to make his Moose program a success, Moore uploads a virus into all Scout droids, which shuts them down. Without the droid force, Johannesburg is plunged into chaos. Moore then goes to Bradly and urges her to let him go activate his Moose prototype. She reluctantly agrees.

After robbing an armored car, Ninja and his gang return to their hideout. Moore remotely pilots the Moose there and attacks. Yolandi is killed, and Deon is injured. Ninja heroically (?) distracts the Moose so that Chappie can destroy it. Chappie then drives the injured Deon to the Tetravaal factory. Once there, Chappie uploads Deon's entire consciousness (!) into a test droid. Deon awakes in his new mechanical body, and seems to take it much better than I would. Chappie's battery is about to die, so he uploads him consciousness into another Scout droid at the last second.

Back at Ninja's hideout, we see he survived the attack. As he's dogging through Yolandi's things, he finds a flash drive labeled "Mommy's Consciousness Test Backup" and realizes Chappie made a copy of her mind before she died. 

In the final scene, Chappie hacks into the Tetravaal factory, builds a robot that somewhat resembles Yolandi, and uploads her consciousness into it.

• The film starts out with a series of news reports (exactly like District 9 did) and then flashes back to "18 months earlier." I have no idea why this flashback framing structure was necessary, as it's never addressed again.

The movie ends exactly the same way as District 9 as well, with Chappie and Deon on the run, scavenging a living in a Johannesburg slum.

• In case you're wondering, "Chappie" is South African slang for "chap."

• Chappie was amazingly brought to life by actor Sharlto Copley and the WETA DIgital effects team. He looked absolutely real and was seamlessly integrated into the live action, never once looking like a cgi effect.

That said, it's too bad his appearance is so derivative. He looks a LOT like Briareos from the Appleseed manga and anime, complete with the same "bunny ears" and mechanical non-face.

Also, Chappie's "face" features a metal bar above his eyes that raises or lowers according to his mood. Obviously this was done to help give his immobile features a bit of expression. I'm having trouble figuring out what the real world explanation for this movable bar would be though.

• Moore's Moose robot looks familiar as well. Most fans think it looks like the ED-209 from Robocop, and it does, but it kept reminding me of something else, like a toy I used to have. I finally realized it looks amazingly like the Zentraedi Officer's Battle Pod from Robotech.

• Kudos to Blomkamp for not mentioning the year in which the film's set. By not placing it in 2018, the film won't be dated in a couple of years. It's the near future. That's all we need to know.

• Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er star in the film as Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er, the thugs who kidnap Deon and act as surrogate parents to Chappie. In reality they're two thirds of the South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord, and are apparently playing themselves here. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of them.

By the way, Die Antwoord (pronounced "dee antwort") means "The Answer" in Afrikaans. I have no idea how you pronounce "Vi$$er." Is it "Visser?" "Vi cha-ching cha-ching er?"

• Ninja and Yolandi— the characters, that is— are apparently big fans of the 1966 Batman series. Their hideout is decorated with day-glow graffiti, much like the lairs of the Joker or the Riddler. All that's missing are the slanted floors!

• Ninja and his gang owe a large sum of money to a terrifying-looking crime lord named "Hippo." I don't know why, but I found it funny that all through the film Hippo speaks in English, but his dialog had to be subtitled due to his heavy Afrikaans accent.

• Yolandi says if they had a "remote," they could shut off the Scout droids and then plunder and rob to their hearts' content. That's actually not a bad idea (for a crook). They kidnap Deon to force him to build them such a remote. He tells them it's impossible, as there's no way to shut off the droids remotely. He risks getting shot by admitting this, so I'm assuming he's telling the truth.

Later Moore needs to eliminate the Scouts in order to give his Moose robot a chance to shine. So what does he do? He builds a device (OK, a computer virus) that shuts down the Scouts from a distance! You know, that sounds amazingly like a remote. So I guess it wasn't so impossible after all, eh?

• There are plot holes and there are plot holes, and then there are the frustrating, epically jaw-dropping plot holes of Chappie. Plot holes so large you could not only drive a semi truck through them, but probably a 747 as well.

Case in point: As mentioned above, Ninja and his gang kidnap Deon so he'll build them a robot remote, and threaten to kill him if he doesn't. Instead he gives them Chappie, the world's first artificially intelligent robot. Once he hands over Chappie, Ninja actually lets Deon go! Are you fraking kidding me? How the hell does he know that Deon wouldn't drive straight to the police, tell them where the hideout is and turn them all in? 

I was with the film up to this point, but once this massive plot hole blossomed I was done. I couldn't take it seriously after that.

If that wasn't enough, after Deon barely escapes Ninja's hideout with his life, he actually comes back the next day in order to check up on Chappie and start teaching him! Who the hell would do that? Yes, he was excited about Chappie and his burgeoning intelligence, but why would anyone in their right mind willingly return to the lair of their psychotic and unbalanced kidnappers?

Later Ninja wants to teach Chappie about the real world, so he drives him to a dangerous part of Johannesburg (which would be just about anywhere, from the looks of the place) and actually leaves him there. That's right— Ninja is the only thug in all of South Africa with his own personal super-strong, nearly indestructible robot, and he tosses him in front of a street gang. 

Chappie's then brutalized and mutilated and barely escapes with his "life," making his way back to Ninja's hideout the next day. He's even missing a goddamned arm when he returns! When Ninja sees Chappie's dire state he says, "Golly, I didn't know all that would happen!" Well what the frak was he expecting? For Chappie to come back with a perm and a manicure? Lucky for him the police or Tetravaal didn't pick him up and trace him back to their hideout.

Lastly, Moore wants a chance for his Moose prototype to prove itself. To that end, he sabotages the entire Scout program, shutting them down and plunging the city into chaos. How many lives were lost due to Moore's idiocy? How much property damage did he cause? And all because he wanted to look good for his next performance review.

The only way this story can work is if EVERYONE in it acts like a complete and utter idiot at all times. It's hard to take a film seriously when it has this many flaws. It torpedoes any sense of realism the movie might have had, as it ventures firmly into satirical or even farcical territory.

• Chappie is supposedly the first robot in this world with artificial intelligence. Yet before he's "born," we see a squad of Scouts as they're raiding Hippo's hideout. The Scouts are able to assess the situation and come up with an effective attack strategy on the fly. They have no trouble differentiating between targets and innocents. They even have enough awareness to use their own bodies to shield the human officers. Doesn't all this behavior sound kind of... intelligent?

I suppose we're meant to think that while the normal Scouts may have some rudimentary intelligence, none of them has a "soul" like Chappie.

• Of all the many concepts Blomkamp brings up, the only concept that's given halfway adequate screen time is Nature vs. Nurture. We see that despite Ninja's' best efforts to corrupt Chappie and teach him to rob and kill, he refuses to do so and retains his morality and innocence.

• Everyone's motivations are extremely fluid in this film, and can literally turn on a dime. Ninja and Yolandi start out as psychotic murderers and lowlifes, but once they meet Chappie that all flies out the window as they turn into surrogate parents. Yolandi becomes a caring and nurturing mother and the unbalanced Ninja even becomes a father figure to the robot. Ninja even becomes a selfless hero at the end, sacrificing himself to save Deon and Chappie! 

Even Deon's not immune to these radical character shifts. He starts out as a typical straight-laced nerd, but by the end of the film he's practically one of the thugs, going so far as to buy a gun and threaten Ninja with it. 

Moore is ostensibly a gifted robotics engineer, but ends up acting more like a psychotic mercenary.

I suppose these changes in behavior are possible, but it seems unlikely. I assume these flexible motivations were an attempt at creating three dimensional characters, but it just made them seem ill-defined. It's hard to identify with a character when they can literally react in any way.

• Sigourney Weaver gets a free trip to South Africa as she puts in a day's work as Michelle Bradley, the head of Tetravaal. This is an old filmmaking trick, as her appearances are spaced out over the run time to give the impression she's in the film much more than she really is.

• Hilariously, the two main Tetravaal scientists— Deon and Moore— are presented as the sole innovators and staff on their respective projects. In a real high tech corporation they'd be just one of a veritable army of scientists, engineers and programmers working on each project.

• At one point Moore threatens Deon by pinning his head to his desk and pressing his handgun against his face. He even goes so far as to actually pull the trigger on his (thankfuly) empty pistol! Even more amazing, he does this in Deon's cubicle, in full view of the entire office and their dozens of coworkers. Once the fracas is over, Moore claims he was just joking and everyone goes back to checking their Facebook pages as if nothing happened.

I'm guessing Tetravaal must not have a HR department. I let a lot of crap slide where I work, but I draw the line at a coworker pulling a gun on me.

• In order to prevent hackers from taking over the Scout droids, they can only be reprogrammed if a security chip is inserted into their brains. Sounds like a good idea.

One would think this highly important chip would be heavily guarded, probably housed inside a giant vault surrounded by lasers, moats and guards, right? Nope! Thanks to Tetravaal's ridiculously lax security, the chip's sitting in a metal cage, much like the one a high school gym teacher would use to store the school's volleyballs. Deon is able to access the memory card— so he can install his AI into Chappie wayyyyy too easily.

• Michelle Bradley is one hell of a CEO. Deon comes to her and breathlessly says he's invented honest to goodness artificial intelligence (on his home computer, yet!). Her reaction? A big fat "meh." She says the Scout program is a success without it, and Tetravaal isn't interested in AI. I bet the shareholders would loooove to hear she just turned that down. Such a program would be worth billions, if not more!

In a similar vein, she's ready to scrap Moore's Moose droid because it's overkill for an urban setting. OK, she probably has a point there. But what about the military? I'm sure they wouldn't be interested in an indestructible walking tank, would they Michelle?

• All through the film there's much hand wringing over the fact that Chappie's battery is fused to his body and can't be removed, giving him only about five days of "life" before it runs down.

Deon says the Scout droids are "plug and play," meaning their limbs and components can be easily swapped out. In fact after Chappie loses an arm, psycho thug Amerika is able to easily install another one with ease. 

So why couldn't Deon just remove Chappie's head and stick it on another body? Why all this "downloading his consciousness" bushwah?

• It's pretty amazing that you can store a person's entire consciousness— all their memories, experiences and even their very soul on what appears to be a standard flash drive. And you can also upload said consciousness in about five seconds. Meanwhile it takes me a several minutes to save one 200 megabyte Photoshop drawing to a disk.

• As Moore is trying to convince Bradley to OK the Moose prototype, he assures her the giant robot is indestructible. For something that's supposedly invulnerable, Chappie's able to destroy it pretty easily.

• In the final minutes of the film, Chappie uploads the dying Deon's mind into a spare Scout body. The implications of that action alone would have been enough to fill an entire movie, but by that point there's no time left and the film blurs right past it, scarcely touching on it.

• After the police regain control of the city and the chaos subsides, a news report tells us that the Scout program has been scrapped. The police department is hiring several hundred human officers to take their place. Why the hell would they do that? Based on everything we were shown, the Scout program was a huge success. The only reason it failed was because of Moore's boneheaded machinations.

Plus the Scouts never actually killed or ran amok, they simply stopped working. All Tetravaal would have to do is up the security a bit to prevent another takeover and they'd be good to go. Seems like the public would want them back on the beat.

Chappie could have been a deep and thought provoking sci-fi film, but it doesn't have the patience or skill to examine the concepts it presents. Add to that the fact that everyone in the film has to act like a complete and utter idiot in order for the story to work, and you end up with a muddled, half-baked mess. I give it a B-.

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