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Blomkamp, story simply “okay” in Chappie

Provided by www.imdb.com

The disappointment of expectation may be worse than its fulfillment. With his first outing, “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp created an aura of splendor around his science fiction pictures. The film positioned his future endeavors as those to keep an eye on, and to accept as being as revolutionary as his first. “District 9” was exciting to watch, but featured a strong narrative allegory for the South African Apartheid history in the treatment of its aliens. Blomkamp’s follow-up, “Elysium,” was crushed beneath expectation, never truly separating itself from its former’s success. It was a failure in its story as well as its blatant representation of the divide between the rich and poor. As muddled as the film was, it still gave the audience a message to consider after the credits had rolled. Perhaps, that is where the anticipation for his newest film, “Chappie,” was created, and then became its downfall.

“Chappie” is not a bad film, but as with many of Hollywood’s perpetual releases, it is not spectacular either. “Okay” was never a better one-word representation of a film. The promise of the trailers and of the director’s name poised the audience for a singular, revolutionary tale, something to enchant the eyes while capturing the mind. These glamorous heights are never really reached during the film’s run time.

Following his penchant for science-fiction as well as his usual setting of Johannesburg, Blomkamp deals with a future where police robots have been built to assist the humans in their more dangerous tasks. The crime rate has gone down as a result, and besides a few factions of gangs still living, the area is relatively peaceful. What fun would a movie be if that order did not collapse?

Sadly, too much of the film’s focus is positioned on a specific gang and their search for millions of dollars to pay off a rival gang leader. Their quest leads them to Deon (Dev Patel), the robot’s creator, whom they kidnap in hopes of forcing him to shut down the robotic force. It is then that they discover one of these robots in Deon’s trunk, made inactive by a crippling wound to the chest. However, Deon has recently discovered how to give his creations sentience, and he works to reprogram the robot with its own working mind. This robot comes to be named Chappie (voiced and motion captured by Blomkamp-regular Sharlto Copley), who has a mind that exceeds even a human’s and certainly any robot. He possesses the ability to create art, poetry, and music, all inventions of the human soul formed from the processes of a machine.

What a disappointment, then, that the story does not explore this interesting thread. Instead, Deon and his hopes of using his morals to teach Chappie good are pushed away in favor of following the gang and their antics. Played by South African rap duo Die Antwoord Ninja and Yolandi Visser (which also, rather unsubtly, are their names in the film), their lessons to Chappie are often cruel and inane even for the simplistic way they are written. The two rap stars seem superfluous additions, present only for the placement of their brand and music, which can be heard blaring often in the background throughout the film. Their performances are as mixed a bag as the movie itself, and at times their acting can distract from any emotion or story trying to be conveyed by their characters. While by the end of the film, the viewer is supposed to be rooting for them as they fight to survive a rival gang’s brutality, the impression left by their antics and “teaching” towards Chappie have already painted them as unlikable characters. Too much emphasis was placed on their despicable sides for any endearment to occur.

That seems to be the same for Hugh Jackman’s character, Vincent Moore. Characterized only by his jealousy of Deon and his rather distracting mullet, he is portrayed as more a bully than a man capable of any scientific engineering feat as the script tells us. Often times, his “menace” is more idiotic than terrifying. When a man pulls a gun on an office building and threatens a coworker with it (while others standby and watch, as well) it’s an indication that he is no more a vile person than he is an insane one.

Chappie himself is the heart that the movie tries to earn. Watching the mind of this robot develop from a simple child’s world-view to one encompassing all the queries of the world is a pleasure to see. The robot’s interactions with the world and its people, even at times when he is ignorant of the wrong-doings he is committing, forms a more endearing relationship to the audience than any human can connect with.

In his previous films, Blomkamp dealt with social issues through the cover of a gritty science-fiction landscape. Halfway through this, I wondered where any ideas to ponder over were. There is a brief glimmer, a question as to what is consciousness and the meaning of its possession, but that is quickly squeezed out in favor of watching a gang manipulate a robot into criminal acts.

No qualms can be had over the special effects or the action, which are both convincing. However, though these were an expectation of the film that was met, they still come to be overshadowed by all the missed opportunities. What one feels leaving is the nagging question of why simple narrative mistakes could not be fixed to make “Chappie” a great film alongside the likes of “District 9”.

Maybe that was the intent. Blomkamp still rides the success of “District 9,” his impervious film, six years later and cannot reach those heights he himself created. And we, too, ride on the expectation that film created in us to look forward to his future projects. Still, we wait.