Chappie (2015)

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

The 2009 surprise hit District 9 established South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp as a quintessential science-fiction filmmaker of ideas. Those ideas weren’t necessarily dazzling in their originality. District 9 wasn’t subtle about the way it employed the largely class-based conflict between recent alien arrivals and human beings who treat their new neighbors with shocking callousness to comment on the cruelty and dehumanizing aspects of South Africa’s apartheid past.

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Blomkamp’s film seemingly came out of nowhere to become a huge international blockbuster. It was even a long-shot nominee for Best Picture, albeit one with only a slightly better chance of winning than movies that weren’t nominated. Blomkamp’s follow-up, 2013’s Elysium, cemented his reputation as a filmmaker as enraptured by provocative ideas and social commentary as he is by spectacle and action. The movie also suggested that Blomkamp had an unfortunate tendency to let the magnitude of his ideas outstrip his ability to realize them. To put things in George Lucas terms, he went from creating Han Solo and the gang to unleashing Jar Jar Binks upon the world in record time. And Blomkamp’s Jar Jar Binks is a similarly silly-talking man-child of the robotic persuasion, who goes by the name of Chappie.

If Elysium made a lot of folks feel a little iffy about Blomkamp as a filmmaker, then last year’s Chappie made them wonder if they’d been egregiously wrong about him all along. It’s a film so off that it calls the filmmaker’s entire oeuvre into question, a movie so dodgy it caused me to retroactively like District 9 less. Chappie broadcast its egregious awfulness for months before its release. It was the subject of feverish anticipation by bad-movie lovers wondering if it could possibly be as terrible and misguided as it appeared.

Everything about the movie promised a train wreck, from its irritatingly cheerful title; to its bizarre fusion of Short Circuit, Flight Of The Navigator, and RoboCop; to its casting of South African rap duo Die Antwoord members Ninja and Yolandi Visser as desperate criminals in the near future named, respectively, Ninja and Yolandi Visser. Only Blomkamp knows why he decided to make the film’s primary villain, a robotics and weapons designer played by Hugh Jackman, look like an unusually hirsute session musician for early ’80s yacht rock bands. On a follicular level alone, Chappie is a goddamned mess. I haven’t seen such squalor or so many inconceivably awful, semi-mullet hairstyles since my last visit to The Gathering Of The Juggalos.

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Considering how lazily derivative our culture has become, it takes an awful lot to get called out for being unoriginal. The culture-wide eye-roll that greeted a movie about a sentient robot with an irresistible child-like spirit was likely rooted in the shamelessness and incompetence of the stealing. If Blomkamp was going to make a movie about robot cops, why not just call it RoboCop? Maybe because RoboCop was remade the year before, although you could certainly be forgiven for forgetting the new RoboCop exists. Everyone else has.

Chappie opens, bewilderingly enough, with a pair of talking heads discussing the film’s controversial robot technology as if in a documentary or mockumentary. Then Anderson Cooper appears as himself and delivers the following avalanche of exposition:

Johannesburg, South Africa became the focus of the world in 2016 with the deployment of the planet’s first all-robotic police units. Crime levels plummeted and [weapons contractor] Tetra Vaal’s stock skyrocketed. The biggest fear the population expressed was vulnerability to hacking. Tetra Vaal assures this is not something to worry about, with their bulletproof guard key system, a system that allows them, and only them, to update software on the robots.

Before the success of the ubiquitous human-sized police robots, there was a bigger bad boy on the block: The Moose. Vincent Moore [Hugh Jackman] is a weapon designer and a former soldier. He has a fundamental spiritual issue with artificial intelligence. The Hyper-Van’s Neural transmitter converts the human operator’s thoughts into the robot’s actions, a departure from the artificial intelligence that governs the scouts. Now, with interest coming from the U.S., China, and North Korea, the scout’s creator, Deon Wilson, sees a rich future.

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I’m singling this out both because of how excruciatingly written it is, and also because it’s representative of the film’s storytelling. As just about the first thing audiences understandably skeptical of a film about a magical robotic baby-man called Chappie would see and hear, it amply confirms their darkest fears about the weird tough guy treacle to follow.

In the world of Chappie, robots controlled by human law-enforcement agents help keep order in violence-ravaged South Africa. But inventor Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) wants to create a robot that can do more than just kill bank robbers. He wants to create a robot blessed with human intelligence, who can paint a pretty flower or write poetry or start an emo band. You know, all the horse shit that separates us from the animals.

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When trying to justify the A.I. program to steel-willed boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), the inventor talks dreamily of having created the first robot who can do things like “judge art.” He acts as if this is unmistakably a good thing. But I could imagine few things more annoying than finding out that the anonymous online asshole you’ve been arguing with about the relative merits of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice was actually a robot blessed with artificial intelligence and with it, the opportunity to make everyone in the world cognizant of its opinions about everything.

With a sales pitch like that, it’s no wonder Michelle turns him down. An undeterred Deon then achieves his dream of imbuing a robot with extremely advanced artificial intelligence by fixing a broken police robot, which is then promptly stolen by Ninja and Yolandi Visser. The desperate, poorly coiffed criminals want to use Chappie for a heist to help raise the $20 million they owe to a gangster named Hippo.

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Ninja and Yolandi set about remaking Chappie in their own kitschy, post-apocalyptic image. They try to give him a gangsta makeover, complete with a giant dollar sign around his neck (those rap guys sure do like money!). Chappie in gangsta mode is an utterly singular combination of A.I. and Ali G., a combination that has never been attempted before and, God willing, will never be attempted again.

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It speaks to the film’s bizarre tonal disconnect that Chappie is supposed to be an adorably innocent, child-like baby robot the audience is supposed to fall in love with. Yet much of the film’s ostensible humor comes from the many ways in which he amusingly mispronounces and mangles the word “motherfucker.” Chappie is maudlin and insufferable, a robot version of the twinkly eyed exemplar of childhood innocence that Robin Williams played in many of his lesser films. He is such a terrible character that I was rooting for him to be deactivated not out of any philosophical objections (unlike Vince Moore, I do not have a fundamental spiritual issue with artificial intelligence) but just because I didn’t want the cloying metallic asshole onscreen anymore.

Blomkamp’s disastrous film has no real sense of what it wants to be or what it wants to achieve. The unashamedly earnest, father-son relationship between Deon (a saintly sort who wants to selflessly aid human- and robot-kind alike) and Chappie (who serves as Frankenstein’s monster to Deon’s overwhelmed Doctor Frankenstein) speaks to a deep, almost embarrassingly sincerity at the film’s core. Chappie doesn’t just believe in things. It believes in deeply embarrassing things like childhood innocence, and friendship, and how war and crime are not healthy for children and other living things.

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Yet Chappie is filled with bizarrely inappropriate and jarring moments of ultra-violence, many of them perpetrated against Chappie himself. Because Chappie is established as a child-like figure, watching him be abused is like watching a child suffer. To give Blomkamp credit, it is almost impressive how much he gets us to feel the pain of a goddamned robot, but it’d be much more impressive if he got us to care about, literally, anything else. Chappie is almost Christ-like in his suffering, which is a strange thing to say about a character with dialogue along the lines of, “Chappie be the baddest streetwise professor in Jo-burg, motherfucker!”

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It almost feels as if Blomkamp wrote two very different scripts: a family-friendly PG-rated comedy about a quirky and lovable police A.I. robot who learns what it means to be human from an unlikely surrogate family, and a violent, R-rated crime drama about desperate fringe characters planning a heist, then decided to simply combine the two scripts at the last minute. Perhaps it’s fitting that Blomkamp, a filmmaker obsessed with mutations and cross-pollination and fusing aliens with humans and humans with super-intelligent robots, made a hybrid of a film that combines maudlin sentimentality with fuzzy philosophizing and strangely impersonal action. He made a family film no one under 17 should be allowed to see, and no one over 17 should want to see: An R-rated comedy about a sass-talking silly goose of a robot that inquires desperately, “What is it to be human? Is it an intangible, ineffable gift from a divine creator or a mere matter of programming, divine or otherwise?” It’s a stupid, stupid movie that asks some very big questions it is wholly incapable of answering.

Like District 9 and Elysium before it, Chappie is unmistakably a science-fiction film of ideas. If nothing else, the film proves that Blomkamp is a real auteur, a man with a strong vision and distinct sensibility that comes through even in his worst, least-watchable work. The problem is that all of the ideas in Chappie are terrible, and so is the film itself.

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Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco