Saturday, March 21, 2015


Switching Psyches (The Ol' Good Bot/Bad Bot Routine)
Because I'm CHAPPiE...(Like a ROM Without a Roof)

The director of the brilliant District 9 (and the more ordinary Elysium) now has a third visionary sci-film under his belt. Neill Blomkamp is a great visual stylist—none of his movies look like anything else out there, and just when somebody takes up his concepts, he pushes things further into his bleak concept of the future as an extension of the strife of Johannesburg (or Jo-burg, as it's called in his movies, eschewing the Dutch influence) despite technology continuing to move forward. His movies always have a sense of wonder about the future, but it's always along the lines of "Wonder why everything is so shitty, still," (which is a variation of "If we can get to the Moon,* why can't we fill in the blank??")

CHAPPiE is no different, even though the ads make it seem like a winsome version of a distopian "Mad Max" movie. It is anything but. Yes, the performance of Sharlto Copley as the title character is a marvel, innovative and often very charming (Copley, who is Blomkamp's "go-to" actor for...everything...does a marvelous performance of the "motion capture" variety (the thing that Andy Serkis, of Peter Jackson's movies and in the new "Planet of the Apes" series, does so extraordinarily). The movie itself is a depressing look at technology and Society, while containing a couched message about the malleability of the human spirit and a cautionary one of being too fixed to expectations.
SCOUT (CHAPPiE, specifically)
Blomkamp plops us back into the world of Elysium where the city-slums are policed by robo-cops on a set pre-program. The main defense if the Scout-droids—tall, angular humanoid shapes that patrol the streets (as outlined in the de rigeur video-fed prologue). But, all ready to go online are the Moose-droids, which are big, elephantine machines, controlled by remote human handlers using a helmet—plugged-in gamers in their own version of an urban first-person shooter. The Scouts' development team is led by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire and The Best and Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) while the competing Moose designs, spear-headed by Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, in a way that we'll talk about later) are still in the development stage. Moore is impatient to get them on-line to the point where he'll sabotage the successful Scout program to do it. Boss Sigourney Weaver goes with whatever works and the Scouts, for now, are working. 
But Deon is not satisfied with success, and with merely working to sets of parameters and protocols. He wants his Scouts to be more human—real-live-boy Scouts—with artificial intelligence that learns and grows as it does its job. The Boss is less than encouraging about advancing the product, as much as churning them out to meet demand. Deon conspires to develop them off-site, taking a disabled Scout, a new program he's developing, and the most guarded of the firm's gizmo's, the chip to program the 'bots.
Office politics in Jo'burg: Patel and Jackman
Wouldn't ya know it? When Deon has all that gear is precisely the time he gets kidnapped by car-jacking street punks Yo-landie (played by South African punk-rapper Yolandi Visser—real name Anri du Toit) and her partners, Ninja (played by South African punk-rapper Ninja—real name Watkin Tudor Jones) and Yankie, (played by honest-to-god actor Jose Pablo Cantillo). They're scheming, too. They're in the debt of Hippo (Brandon Auret, who adapts a patois so thick, he's actually sub-titled in the movie, even though he's speaking English). Their operations are going so poorly, thanks to the Scouts, that they decide to fight fire with fire, by getting their own Scout as a defense against the robo-force. Basic math belies this (1≠zillions), but then, if these guys were any good at numbers, they wouldn't be in debt (especially considering they're living expenses amount to bling, and stolen bling at that).
Perp walk, Jo-burg style:
Yolandi, Ninja, Yankie, and CHAPPiE
Deon is forced to fix his little experiment at gun-point and under less than ideal conditions, but the re-constituted droid comes to life with basic programming, like that of a child, and quickly learns to imprint himself on the humans, interacting with them.
What CHAPPiE sees
This is good in the case of Deon and Yo-lande, semi-okay with Yankie, and downright harmful in the case of Ninja, who tends to over-react when things don't go his way, usually with violence.** This is where the movie becomes really uncomfortable and begins to feel like watching child abuse. Look, it's a movie, okay? It's about robots. I get it. But, one is supposed to connect emotionally with a movie—that's the intent. And my reaction to watching Ninja abusing the still-in-development Scout (Yo-lande calls him "Happy Chappie," which Deon hates) creates a feeling of revulsion. Blomkamp plays rough—his settings have all the charm of a refugee camp and his environments combine grinding poverty with sci-fi tech, a not mutually exclusive reflection of reality, but amped up on both sides of the spectrum.
There's a warning label that says:
"Never fist-bump with a Scout-droid"
Yo-lande and Ninja live in a gutted out industrial site, and even as Deon tries to nurture Chappie in his intellectual growth, Ninja teaches him how to live on the streets, but when Chappie's employed to do some car-jackings, the media picks up on it, sending the city of Jo-burg into a panic. Moore is pressed (actually he does the pressing) to bring the Moose on-line, and his interests are more than stemming the tide of unrest, he wants to wipe out the gangs, Deon, and Chappie for his own career advancement. It's clear that Moore is an HR nightmare. And it's interesting to note that while Copley is busy being the title character, Jackman is copying Copley's jibbering, flinty acting style for the role that (if he wasn't busy wearing a CGI suit) would have been played, equally as manically, by Copley. It's a different (and alarming) side of Jackman that's fun to watch him pull off, even while his character is being seriously psycho.
"Walk like a man/Fast as you can"
Ninja teaches Chappie to "walk street"
That backstage swapping of personalities is a bit like a sub-plot of the movie, a variation of the Sci-Fi/Horror trope of mind-swapping (only in the new vernacular, it's "up-loading" and "down-loading"); whatever the term, it's a borrowed device, but CHAPPiE (the movie) only really does anything different, and has any spark of wonder and the fantastic (or even ingenuity) in those sections. That, and in the stunt-casting of the South African rap duo Die Antwoord as themselves (think of it in the same light as casting Prince, The Beatles, or Eminem to play fantasy versions of their personas) are the only aspects where CHAPPiE isn't terribly derivative, and becomes something more than the ol' Sci-Fi zap-'em-up with Rock'em Sock'em Robots, and becomes a sort of sweetly reversed "Frankenstein," with a conclusion that says "what matters lasts."

But, it's a lot of torture getting there.

* Or it's "conspiracy theory" variant: "If we can fool the world into thinking we went to the Moon, why can't we mass-produce tin-foil hats for the Masses?"  

And yes, I am watching you while you're reading this.

And so are they.

**  This puts him at odds...and odd kinship...with Deon, who also wants things "just so" as he defines it, and explodes when they're altered, to the point where he has enough and buys a gun. The one character who "goes with the flow" is Yo-landie.

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