Directed by: Neill Blomkamp || Produced by: Simon Kinberg
Screenplay by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell || Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman
Music by: Hans Zimmer || Cinematography by: Trent Opaloch || Edited by: Julian Clarke || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 120 minutes
In case you missed it, I recently posted a couple super-excited articles about young science-fiction director, Neill Blomkamp, signing on to write and direct a new Alien (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997) sequel starring Sigourney Weaver and presumably Michael Beihn. Much of the hype leading up the filmmaker’s most recent film, Chappie, has been swamped by this news about a rival studio’s production (Chappie was produced by Sony), as well as pretty lame reviews for Chappie itself, averaging out to about 30% Positive on Rottentomatoes.com.
While I remain excited about Blomkamp’s potential to contribute to the Alien canon as well as his genuine fan-appreciation for the franchise, I’m becoming more and more nervous as his screenwriting becomes increasingly convoluted and bizarre. On the other hand, I can’t help but defend the man as his post-District 9 (2009) work gets continually shredded by both fans and critics simply for not being District 9. The fact that he makes original R-rated properties, he doesn’t make movies with a Marvel-label slapped on them, that science-fiction fans are notoriously picky, and that his name is not Christopher Nolan hurts him a lot before he even sits down to pen a script or shoot a single frame. Then again, aside from D9, Blomkamp has proven a shaky writer at best; his penchant for action-direction and visual design are spectacular, but he repeatedly limits those visual talents by shooting himself in the foot with sloppy or seemingly unfinished scripts. Chappie in particular feels like it was based on a first-draft screenplay, indicating that Blomkamp needs to stop relying only on his wife, Terri Tatchell, to edit his stories.
So, I guess in summary, I’m really torn with the man. The creative talent and fiery imagination is definitely there, and he’s proven he can direct (and write) a magnificent film; I just don’t want him to end up like a Richard Kelly or M. Night Shyamalan who peters out after one or a couple great films. In a lot of ways, taking on a pre-existing franchise may be a great thing for him and get him to think outside Johannesburg for once —- a real irony given how most young, up-and-coming directors tend to devolve and self-destruct after selling out in Hollywood remakes and sequels (e.g. Marc Webb).
All that in mind, Chappie is not a bad film. Neither was Elysium (2013) for that matter. Yes, visually speaking they were very similar to D9 without coming close to the latter’s overall quality, but that does not make Chappie or Elysium crappy films. Again, a big problem I have with so much of the hate against Blomkamp is that most of that criticism is so lazy and hypocritical. If your main argument against the man is his visual and thematic similarity and inconsistent delivery, and yet you are a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or comic book movies in general, then go fuck yourself.
So what about Chappie? I think it goes without saying that, if you’re a science-fiction fan with a relatively open mind and/or an appreciation for Blomkamp’s grimy, gritty style, you’ll enjoy Chappie despite its narrative incoherence and tonal inconsistency. If you’re neither of those things, you won’t like Chappie. It’s as simple as that.
I enjoyed the film’s premise, its numerous homages to other (better) sci-fi films like Robocop (1987), and its down-and-dirty feel. The action was great, but the star of the show was Sharlto Copley’s heartwarming Chappie and his great interactions with his pseudo-“parents” Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord and “maker”/AI-engineer Dev Patel. In many ways the film’s goofy visuals and hilariously dysfunctional family dynamics recall the likes of American Beauty (1999) or Little Miss Sunshine (2006), giving further irony to the film’s firm rejection by critics. If this had been billed as an independent family drama, it would likely get a 60% boost in Tomato-meter score and get nominated for Best Picture. I’m not kidding.
Unfortunately, Chappie is also mired by an inconsistent story that swings back and forth between black comedy, family drama, and sci-fi action. The film simply tries to do too much with such an unrefined script. Numerous unbelievable plot devices and incredulous character actions distract from the adorable Chappie-character and verge on ludicrousness. Hugh Jackman clearly relishes playing a villain for once in his career, but his character is one-dimensional and cartoony and the great Sigourney Weaver is given absolutely nothing to do. By the end of the film, characters are downloading each other’s souls (sorry, “consciousnesses”) into thumb drives and building robot bodies to preserve sentient immortality, and I’m just sitting there in the theatre with my hands on my head, going, “What the fuck is happening?”
In hindsight, Chappie could’ve been written as a semi-violent/action-oriented fish-out-of-water tale with a better screenwriter or more carefully edited story. Right now the film reads (watches?) like a first-draft, something that needed to go through another round or three of writing-workshops or peer-rewrites. There are a lot of great ideas here, and the action itself, though often over-the-top and unnecessary given its narrative context, is quite impressive, but the way everything is jumbled together feels like a mess. What ultimately saves Chappie is its unique feel and distinctive Blomkamp personality, a true outlier (black-sheep?) against the rest of Hollywood’s blockbuster landscapes nowadays, no matter how much it recalls Robocop, Short Circuit (1986), or even WALL-E (2008). Too bad nobody gives a shit about that nowadays.
Good luck with Alien 5, Neill — don’t fuck it up!
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Sharlto Copley is adorkable as Chappie, a great main character with heart, determination, and a clear arc. His dysfunctional family is great too. Chappie’s gritty South African locale, sci-fi action, and goofy visual style go together well in a bizarre sort of Tex-Mex of alternate sci-fi reality.
— However… Blomkamp can’t decide what he wants his film to be about. We got family values, social rejection and societal chaos, science-fiction action, philosophical contemplation, and artificial intelligence. Pick one! The ending is a complete mindfuck of bullshit plot devices and writer’s block to wrap up all narrative loose ends. I don’t know what’s happening.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Seriously, DON’T FUCK IT UP.