If it hadn’t been for that one scene in “Birdman”, Oscar season has been very light on explosions, as usual. So after watching some really great artistic accomplishments, it’s time to blow stuff up again… finally. It’s still going to take a few weeks until summer blockbuster season kicks off earnestly, but spring usually gives us a few more experimental action pieces. Case in point, “Chappie” and “Kingsman”, one of which has been a big success so far.
„Chappie“ is Neill Blomkamp’s third movie and stars Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and the South African Rap/Rave duo Die Antwoord. It is set in Johannesburg in the near future and follows the robot Chappie, voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, who is the first actually functional AI, created by Dev Patel’s young programmer Deon Wilson. Deon works for a weapons manufacturer and has invented a robotic police force that has been adapted by the Johannesburg police force.
There has been much talk about Neill Blomkamp lately. This is due to him having a hugely anticipated movie coming out and his next project already announced, one little known property called “Alien”. After his Oscar nominated debut feature “District 9”, Blomkamp has been lauded as one of the most interesting young directors working today. Then his follow-up “Elysium” failed with the critics and people started worrying if he was a one-hit-wonder, similar to one M. Night Shyamalan. So obviously his third movie has been eagerly awaited. Personally, I think that three movies are not enough to see a trend. Akira Kurosawa took ten movies to create his first masterpiece. Of course, then he started to crank them out one after another. So whatever my opinion of “Chappie”, I am still going to be there for whatever the next “Alien” film will be called hits theatres.
Whatever your stance on Blomkamp, he is a visual effects wizard. “Chappie” looks amazing. The scout robots look realistic and cool, explosions and firefights are as good as they get. Also a staple of Blomkamp’s work, the film takes place in his backyard, Johannesburg, a fascinating city. It gives the film a unique feel and is part of Blomkamp’s inspiration. Speaking of inspiration, for this film, it is split in two. On the one hand, this is based on Blomkamp’s first short film, “Tetra Vaal”, which is also the name of the weapons company in this film. On the other, it is heavily influenced by his love for the music group “Die Antwoord”, borrowing a lot of the stylistic elements from their music videos and songs.
But before we dive into Yo-Landi and Ninja’s involvement in this film, let’s look at the other players involved. By now it is clear that Blomkamp can get a good performance out of an actor. Specifically Sharlto Copley, his childhood friend, who has been a part of all of his three feature films, and is great in all of them. He also plays fundamentally different roles in each film. Here, he gets to play a child again, as Chappie needs to learn what the world is all about. Between Wikus van der Merwe, Kruger and Chappie, this might be the most standard fare he has done for Blomkamp, but it is effective nonetheless. The standout in this film is clearly Hugh Jackman’s mulleted villain Vincent, rival to Dev Patel’s Deon, a religious aussie ex-soldier who has invented another robot, the Moose, that gets overshadowed by the immense success of Deon’s scout program. His antipathy towards Deon comes from a believable place, as he is worried about the implications of a fully functional and unshackled AI… there’s also a bit of religion playing into that, but he still has a point. Finally, Sigourney Weaver is in this movie as Deon’s and Vincent’s boss. The role didn’t necessarily require her talent specifically, but it is always nice to see her in these films, showing her love for the sci-fi genre. Most importantly however, her involvement in this film led directly to Neill Blomkamp getting hired for another “Alien” film, which is awesome.
Alright… Enough beating around the bush… “Die Antwoord” are terrible. Oh my god, are they bad. And what’s even worse, they play themselves. They are bad at playing themselves. I don’t really know if I can truly convey how irritating they are. It even took me a while to actually figure out that they are really playing future versions of themselves. Until that point, I was wondering why Yo-Landi and Ninja are wearing “Die Antwoord” merchandise. One thing that can be said about the two is that they are apparently completely above self-flattery, as they are playing not only themselves, but also two of the most stupid characters I’ve ever seen. Also unlikeable. Also annoying. Also did I mention irritating? When I said that Blomkamp knows how to get a good performance from an actor, I meant actor. If he takes away one thing from “Chappie”, it’s that he has to stop trying to cast his favourite rappers in his films. He tried to have Eminem in “Elysium”, he got Matt Damon. You can’t really go wrong with Damon. For “Chappie” Blomkamp could have gone out on the street and grab the first two people he met and he would have been better off. At least I will now always have an answer to the question which movie was ruined by a bad performance alone.
Because honestly, I loved everything else about this film. Apart from some small script issues where focus could have been shifted to some of the bigger questions, maybe giving Patel and Jackman more time together, everything apart from “Die Antwoord’s” acting is so enjoyable. I didn’t even mind the heavy influence that “Die Antwoord” have on the setting and design of parts of this movie. If only someone else had played them.
All in all, as long as you can manage to somehow replace “Die Antwoord” in your head, “Chappie” is a really good Sci-Fi film. It gives you a lot of stuff to think about and discuss, between religion and science, it has some really good acting… and “Die Antwoord”… and the effects are amazing. It also prepares us for the AI driven films coming up, although I doubt that Ultron will be as fundamentally nice as Chappie. Also he’s probably going to aim a little bit higher than car theft.