The warping beats of Hans Zimmer’s first completely electronic score in decades is the driving force of Chappie, the new movie by writer-director Neill Blomkamp. Since he shot into the international spotlight with his breakthrough hit District 9 (which I didn’t care for but seemingly everyone else did), sci-fi fans have been hoping for a James Cameron=style renaissance of big screen, high-concept storytelling. If District 9 is The Terminator, Elysium was no Aliens, instead disappointing fans with baffling allegory, socialist propaganda so extreme that it might please Jean-Luc Godard, and shaky cam action scenes that were neither fun or original. It was not a good movie. In fact, it revealed a lack of vision. Or, rather, two visions as discontinuous with each other as Elysium’s editing was shot to shot. On one hand, Elysium is a go-for-broke bid for a sublime ridiculousness, a kind of big budget B-movie that, despite Blomkamp’s obvious intentions, was impossible to take seriously. The other side of that coin is a sci-fi parable openly concerned with its self-importance on social issues first and foremost.
Chappie attempts the same formula, but for the first time in Blomkamp’s still brief career, we take a deep plunge into the pool of the preposterous. It’s a film not at odds with itself so much as logic itself, so committed to defying rationality, reason, or otherwise common sense that the only appropriate response is surrender. Dialogue is airy, empty, and at times as random as the laws of quantum physics. If there’s a scientific equation to understanding Chappie, I don’t possess it. I can’t provide a plot summary, as there isn’t a plot. I can’t rightfully describe characters, because there aren’t any. Chappie is a high budget parody of a movie that doesn’t exist, a This is Spinal Tap if heavy metal was never invented.
What I can say is that Chappie is about a robot developer name Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who sees a motivational cat poster and believes he can do anything he wants to do. He steals a defunct robot that a shouting Sigourney Weaver (who plays his boss) told him not to, all so he can install “consciousness.dat.” Or, A.I.. Real artificial intelligence. Deon succeeds, creating a robot brought to life by Sharlto Copley through motion capture. He works for a robotics company that sells “scouts”, the robots you've seen on the posters and trailers, to the police. The scouts have been wildly successful in implementation and we hear crime rates are way down. But this is bad. Very bad. I don’t know why, but Blomkamp said so.
Hugh Jackman’s ex-military robot developer agrees with Blomkamp. But he’s mad because he wants his overpowered man-run mega-mech machine to be used on the streets. He’s told they’re overkill, and one look at them shows you that they are. He’s MAD his robots aren’t being used. If this part and performance were cogs in Birdman’s meta-machine, I’d have called it a genius, inspired turn. Jackman plays an over-the-top satirical version of his on-screen persona, walking around in skin tight polos tucked tightly into firmly pressed khaki shorts. He drives a gigantic firetruck-red pick-up truck. He has a mullet. And in what seems like more than half of his lines, he shouts at everyone around him for no reason. As a comic turn, Jackman is incredible. I laughed at more than half of his lines, and so did the rest of my theater. The problem is all of this was completely unintentional. In a baffling move, it’s played straight.
At one point, he draws his gun and jams it against a co-workers face after slamming him into an office desk. He pulls the trigger, but the gun was empty. Everyone in the office is horrified. In Chappie, robot companies don’t have a human resources department.
But what Chappie really is about is Zef-style South African rap group Die Antwoord, who for reasons that defy all reason in the universe have been cast as the principal actors in the movie. They kidnap Deon and his robot (they need to do ‘one last heist” to pay off a debt, and believe kidnapping Deon will give them a “remote” to turn off the robot police since TVs have remotes and so robots obviously do too), name him Chappie, and teach him their ways of gangsta. “ZEF” has been spraypainted all over the set’s walls, Die Antwoord’s particular brand of bizzaro music constantly beats in the background, they wear Die Antwoord clothes, dress like Die Antwoord does in their videos, and, essentially, play themselves. Ninja and Yolandi are their names, who Chappie calls “Daddy” and “Mommy.” When Chappie is first turned on, he acts like a child (there’s some vague themes about robots becoming family a la Blade Runner, but they’re so abstractly hinted at they might not be there at all.)
Chappie is a hundred million dollar music video for Antwoord. Who thought financing a movie about these two strange as hell musicians raising a robot as their gangsta surrogate kid should never finance another movie again. And, full disclosure, I love Die Antwoord. Ninja has been falsely accused of giving a terrible performance, but this is a false criticism. He doesn’t act at all. He just plays himself. Yolandi has an ethereal maternal presence that draws the eye, and, if you can stomach believing it, grounds most of the movie. She’s the only believable part of a thoroughly unbelievable movie.
No part of Chappie makes sense, from its non-themes about police states (the police went from robotically following orders to being literal robots-hurhurhur), to lines, to motivations, to the story, to even how it got made. Watching Chappie is a chaotic mindfuck that defies explanation or category. Zimmer’s score is the only aspect that works in a traditional sense, but what’s so strange, what I, even as I type this right now, can’t understand, is that Chappie completely works non-traditionally. It’s a terrible movie with terrible everything, but its loyal and even stubborn commitment to utter irrationality slowly overwhelmed me with a kinetic chaos that can only be called freeing. Chappie is a liberating, misconceived project on every level, devoutly mad and indirectly engaging. To borrow a phrase from Birdman, Chappie demonstrates the unexpected virtue of ignorance. It is, so far, my favorite film of 2015.
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