The following contains spoilers for Chappie. You have been warned.
Tyler: Chappie is the third feature from director Neill Blomkamp, whose first movie was 2009’s District 9 which was met with high regard and even earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. His follow-up Elysium from two years ago was not as well received by critics or audiences. Heading into Chappie, how did Blomkamp’s past work affect your expectations, and did it meet, exceed, or fall short of those?
Erik: Well, from Blomkamp I’ve come to expect high-minded sci-fi concepts handled very broadly and simplistically (not an insult, by the way), very nice looking special effects, kickass action scenes, an amazing performance from Sharlto Copley, and an unflattering portrayal of his home country, South Africa. And honestly I thought Chappie delivered on every one of those levels. Now, the film has some huge problems in the plot department, but I’ve never found writing to be one of Blomkamp’s strengths. But the visual storytelling I thought was so good that I can easily look past plot issues – although I realize (based on the reviews I’ve read for Chappie) not everyone can.
Tyler: I definitely agree with you on the visual department, particularly in terms of the special effects, which isn’t surprising considering Blomkamp’s past work. I don’t think he gets enough credit for making his movie creations look very worn and very real. Even those that are meant to be fresh off the assembly line, like “The Moose,” never lose the feeling of being on the set. As far as my expectations, I was pleasantly surprised after the general negative word of mouth I had been hearing, including Tim’s review. You mention story and plot not being Blomkamp’s strong suit, what did you think of the story he was trying to tell and they way he incorporated the many themes inserted throughout the movie?
Erik: Well the biggest issue is that there more than a few glaring plot holes – some of which Tim pointed out in the aforementioned review – for instance, Vincent’s (Hugh Jackman) whole storyline revolved around his inability to sell the Moose to Johannesburg’s police force and what his desperation pushes him to. Question: why didn’t he just try selling it to the military? The people he shows it off to even mention how it seems more suited to military operations. Also, Tetravaal is one of the most poorly run companies in the world aparently. They have little to no security (did you notice how many times someone got into an area just by swiping a card?) and apparently have no problem employing a former soldier clearly suffering from some form of PTSD who brings guns into an office and builds giant killer robots. I could go on, but I’d rather to move on. As far as themes, there were quite a few brought up – advancement of AI, militarized police forces, nature vs nurture, what is a soul?, etc – and Blomkamp only really focused on a couple, which has been a point of contention for some people. Personally, I don’t believe just because a filmmaker or storyteller introduces a concept into their work that it means they’re obligated to thoroughly examine it. I thought for the ideas Blomkamp did focus on – family, soul, humanity, and the like – he did a pretty good job.
Tyler: I’m gonna start with the characters, particularly Vincent. I didn’t understand why he was still working for the company. It makes sense that a weapon’s manufacturer would hire an engineer with military experience but since the biggest flaw of his Moose project was the cost and Deon’s Scout (Dev Patel) project was very cost effective, I don’t understand why Vincent wouldn’t have been fired as soon as the scout project was successful or at least transferred to a new division. I got the sense that he was only there to serve as the Jock to Deon’s Nerd and be the negative representation of police militarization. Speaking of that theme, which is a recent hot button issue in the states and other parts of the world, the movie doesn’t seem to have a problem with the idea of using the scouts as urban soldiers.
Erik: I found it interesting, because the world presented to us in the film (or at least the Johannesburg in the film) seemed like a place where robot police was a very good idea. The robots didn’t actually replace the human officers, in fact they were working in tandem with them.
Tyler: Isn’t this how Skynet starts?
Erik: I’m not going to touch the rabbit’s hole that is the gnarled timeline of the Terminator franchise. But I like that AI and robots weren’t portrayed as an out and out bad thing in Chappie, like they often are in sci-fi films. It’s more in line with Isaac Asimov’s treatment of them: robots are essentially tools, neither good nor bad, it’s with the people who use them where morality comes into play. That’s what purpose Vincent served: to show how robots could be a bad thing if in the hands of (as Chappie would say) a bad man. And it’s kind of a shame that’s all Vincent was, a bad man. There was chance for complexity with his character, but the film never really explored what motivates him: why does he have this extreme distrust of artificial intelligence? He calls Chappie godless a few times. Was he supposed to be religious, or was that an ad-lib from Jackman? I almost wish they had just designated Chappie’s “Daddy” Ninja (played by himself) as the villain, because he was one of the most complex characters in the film.
Tyler: I agree with you about Vincent’s character. Based on the trailers and the early scene where Vincent highlighted the fact that the Moose operated via human control, I was on his side. The movie quickly moved him into villain mode because that’s what the movie needed him to be. Let’s move on to the criminal characters, did they work for you?
Erik: Absolutely. This is where actual good storytelling came in. I loved the interactions between Chappie, Ninja, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), and Yolandi – in fact any time a bad plot thread or weird choice in the story started to bother me, the film would cut to a scene among them and I’d get a big ol’ smile on my face (except for, you know, the sad parts). I mentioned Ninja was one of the most complex characters in the film. On one hand he was basically a prick: a violent, bordering on psychotic, criminal who was abusive to what was essentially a child. Yet at the same time he was loyal to and cared about Yolandi and America. You could tell he wasn’t committing crimes just because of a power trip or prestige; he was in a terrible place and wanted desperately to get himself and his friends out of it. By the end he even warmed up to Chappie, and seemed genuinely repentant for lying to him about the heist.
Tyler: He is the only one who goes through any real character arc which is probably my biggest problem with the movie. Yes, Chappie grows in term of his knowledge over time but I didn’t find myself recognizing any real change to him as a person, which I thought was the point of him being actual intelligence or having a real consciousness. He definitely learns that the world is complex, just as humans do over time, but he then simplifies that complexity. I think now would be a good time to address the ending, where Chappie basically discovers how to reverse engineer the program that makes him and by moving human consciousness into robot bodies. I had a big problem with this, aside from wondering how the Tetravaal warehouse still had all of its manufacturing equipment after being shut down. My issues with it, though, was that it negated the complexity and value of Chappie himself by making something that was complex simple. I also wondered how he was able to be infinitely smarter than Deon, who created him.
Erik: I do disagree about Chappie having an arc, which I believe was him coming to terms with own mortality. Sure he basically learns how to bring people back to life by the end but he is also willing to give up his own life to save his creator (remember, he and Deon don’t know they can save both of them at the time). And regarding the absurdity of copy-and-pasting the human conscious: who cares? Chappie brought his Mommy back to life, now he and his new robot-human mixed family can go off and have fun adventures. If that last sentence sounded laced with sarcasm, it wasn’t. Chappie may have killed my snark because of the emotional journey it took me on. That ending was full of catharses, from Chappie beating the ever-loving crap out of Vincent (he killed his Mommy for chrissakes) to almost seeing them die and then not die and then there was Yolandi’s new robot face at the end (which made no sense, granted) set to a Die Antwoord song. I don’t know, for me everything just came together by the end, which is why I could take a few leaps in logic.
One thing I wanted to ask you, I’ve noticed in some reviewers have complained about Chappie’s voice and mannerisms; essentially calling him annoying – which probably prevented them from having the emotional connection I did. In fact, in my theater, I heard some people laughing at points when Chappie was talking that were clearly supposed to be more dramatic. So (leaving aside character arcs) what did you think of Chappie himself – Copley’s performance, visual aesthetics, etc?
Tyler: First, there weren’t many people in theater to whom I could compare my own reaction. Those that were in the theater only laughed when Chappie was emulating Ninja or America which I think is when they were supposed to laugh. I didn’t have much of an issue with the performance or the voice, though I think it was a little strange that this character who we are supposed to recognize as human, had such a robotic voice. I assume that was as much Blomkamp’s decision as it was Copley’s, if not more so. For me, though, my biggest problem with the movie wasn’t in any of the performances, more with the characters. With the exception of Ninja and Chappie, everyone felt like a representation of an ideology for Blomkamp to use to try to make one of his many points on the many themes he tries to explain. I understand that this is one of the characteristics of science fiction, but when none of the points are fully formed, it felt like a hodgepodge rather than a complete film.
Erik: I will say, as much as I enjoyed the film, I do have some concerns about Blomkamp’s artistic future. The only other person who worked on Chappie’s script was Terri Tatchell, Blomkamp’s wife, who also worked on District 9. When artists becomes too insulated, like, say, Larry and Lana Wachowski, it can be difficult for them recognize and grow out of their own flaws, and we end up with things like Jupiter Ascending. So, if Neill Blomkamp is reading this (what am I saying, of course he is) let me offer him the same advice I offered the Wachowskis when I discussed their space opera: please let a third party writer have the final draft on your next script.