I sure do place a lot of importance on originality don’t I? As though recognizing the influence of old art somehow nullifies new art altogether? (Unless Quentin Tarantino does it, of course. Then that’s him being genius.)
Yes, I know it’s folly to complain about new stories just because they owe their existence to old ones, but sometimes when a film pays constant homage to other movies, it only leads to unwanted distraction. Case in point: a film like Chappie, which so eerily evokes our collective and vivid memories of Short Circuit, Short Circuit 2 and sometimes Robocop, that Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi spectacular plays a little bit more like a retro mash-up than a fresh and exciting melody. But hey, at least Die Antwoord mixed it.
I’m getting them out of the way right now. So when I found out that Die Antwoord had been cast in main roles for this film, I cringed. Neil Blomkamp already has a hard enough time rigging in the insanity on his movies at times, and these two were the icing on the over-the-top cake. The South African rap-rave icons, believe it or not, are actually playing themselves in Chappie, which is set two years in the future, when Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser have fallen on hard times. I’m serious, their hide out is chock full of Die Antwoord memorabilia to showcase their past life. So now they commit armed robberies wearing their old booth merch in order to pay back their debt to a violent sociopath, who appears to have been slapped on the back of the head during an Oliver Reed impersonation and just got stuck that way.
That would be plot enough in my book, except a brilliant robotics expert named Deon (Slumdog’s Dev Patel) has also invented an army of robot drones that wage war on crime in South Africa alongside human police officers. So Die Antwoord kidnaps Deon and forces him to program their own battlebot to give them an edge in urban warfare. But then it turns out that Deon had programmed this particular robot with artificial intelligence, so Ninja and Yo-Landi are forced to raise the lovable automaton – named Chappie (played by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley and about 200 VFX animators) – and gradually transform him into a hardened criminal through questionable parenting and outright deception.
And believe it or not, that actually sounds pretty damned original to me. Hell, this movie would even play better in my opinion if Die Antwoord were the main characters in Chappie, but they’re not. Instead Deon takes center stage, and the story of a robot infused with human feelings starts to feel a hell of a lot like Short Circuit. A militaristic douchebag named Vincent (played by a Hugh Jackman, always in little shorts) starts hunting Chappie down like he’s G.W. Bailey, Deon tries to save him like Steve Guttenberg, and Die Antwoord tries to treat him like a real person like Ally Sheedy - except if she were a pair of hardened criminals-slash-former international music superstars. For those of you not following, those were the main cast members of Short Circuit.
Also, throw in some awkward attempts to trick Chappie into committing crimes by taking advantage of the robot’s innocence, like in Short Circuit 2, and a sudden climactic appearance of a robot codenamed THE MOOSE… Which is just an ED-209 on steroids, and you’ve got a terribly familiar story, a Frankenstein cobbled together out of highly recognizable parts. To be honest, the most interesting and unusual aspects of the film are Die Antwoord themselves and I’ll be honest when I say I was so impressed with their acting that I would love to see a prequel story documenting how they got from being performing artists to being bank robbers and mercenaries for hire. But as far as their purpose here, they are but a surreal and incongruous side plot instead of the focus of the story.
But one thing still hasn’t changed on his third outing, and that is that Neill Blomkamp knows how to direct the very familiar film he’s making. Chappie is impressively realized and often very exciting, and Sharlto Copley & Company do an excellent job of making Chappie himself seem like an intriguing and believable character. Blomkamp is usually excellent at raising pointed questions with his sci-fi movies, and here he poses smart queries about the nature of human consciousness. However, he then answers those queries, in a way that’s either extremely cool or totally a FUCKING cop out (see District 9); this, however, depending on how invested you actually were in them.
In the end, Chappie is well made enough to earn some avid fans, particularly if they either haven’t seen the movies that Chappie owes its very existence to, or if they simply don’t care that Blomkamp’s film is a total pastiche. While there are indeed some cheesy moments where it gets a little too over the top, and coupled together with an ending that in short, went way longer and stupider than it should have. I’ll be honest when I say the ending almost ruined the movie for me, in the sense it made everything way too convenient and got so carried away with itself that I seriously thought that a music video dance routine was about to happen in the last 10 seconds. You’ll understand when you see it.
But regardless of how I feel, I can’t take away from how amazing the action is in this, and the visual effects are beyond impeccable. The sense of intensity and character work that Blomkamp brings to Chappie starts to infect you after a while, and you get swept up in its fast-paced shenanigans. But it was extremely close to becoming something impressively new and unusual, evoking earlier films without outright lifting their storylines and imagery. And for some audiences, that’s bound to be a little more frustrating than fun. But I give this movie 'thumbs up' in my book. Good job Neil, you were on your 3rd strike with me after Elysium. I now have renewed faith in him at the helm of the new Alien movie.