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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What Went Wrong With Chappie


Okay, let's talk about Chappie.

Since I saw its trailer, I've been through months of indecision whether or not to put it on my Netflix Queue. I love robot movies, but reviews were terribly mixed - one YouTuber put it on his best of 2015 list and another put it on his worst list. When one critic called it a combination of "Short Circuit" and "Robocop", I couldn't say no anymore.

Overall, it's a highly flawed movie. The concept isn't original, but it's not a cliche. The story has peaks and valleys, like it should, but it's overshadowed by hammy actors. I can't help but see it as a replication of "Short Circuit". Maybe because that's my favorite movie of all time.

But even if it wasn't all the parallels are there. There's the same "learning to walk" moments, not saying words correctly, seeing death for the first time, being fascinated by TV, an Indian programmer who's his "dad", a "break the woobie" scene, a problem with the battery running out, being duped into committing a crime, then going psycho when he learns about it. They both even get covered in graffiti.


You can tell how plausible the movie is going to treat this concept by the "creation" scene. Our kid genius is the lead programmer for cop robots (of whom Chappie is), but he's trying to create an AI in his spare time, drinking Red Bull fetched by his proto-bots. Then there's a montage of him in his hacker cave, typing and compiling -- action! screens! mayhem! excitement! beeping! No one will be seated during the programming scene!

And the only way he can tell it's "done" is if it passes 100% of some arbitrary test. Isn't the real test of intelligence something only humans could measure? Isn't that the point of making it? And at the end, the whole of consciousness can be contained in a single .DAT file.

This is a movie made of two parts. One is the evolution of learning. This is something we've seen before in every robot story: Star Trek's Data, Pinocchio, Terminator. They all have that "cute learning" scene where they look around at stuff and inadvertently break it. He gets a book and gets all "Dis is Chappie's book?" He accidentally pours out milk and freaks out. He starts imitating He-Man on TV. It would be just a rehash of "Short Circuit 2" if it wasn't for the second part: Gangsta Life.

Instead of Johnny 5 Chappie being raised by a kind-hearted animal lover, he's captured/held hostage by two street punks (a girl and a guy). This causes conflict between what his creator wants and what the punks want -- a cop robot in their pocket. (And I'm not even talking about how freaky they look/act or their grinding music.) The "mom" is more nurturing, but all the "dad" wants is something he can use to steal cars and make heists. He acts like Shredder in "TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze".

Babies! They are... babies!

This is where it loses the audience. There's too much dissonance between the culture that's enthralled by AI and the one interested in gangsta life. I applaud the creator for trying to put the two together -- I love mixing genres like this -- but it just doesn't work. You can't combine "Menace II Society" with "Bicentennial Man". It doesn't work because their goal is to turn Chappie into a jerk. He becomes like the bullies in high school, acting tough and doing what anyone tells him. Plus he gets lots of other annoying characteristics, like a faux-South African accent (which sounds more Jamaican to me).


And then there's the "my god, not all humans are friendly!?" scene, where "daddy" drops him in gangland territory and leaves him to get tortured. You'd think if he wanted to get rid of him he could have thought of something more profitable. But this is so we can have our "break the cutie" moment. In "Short Circuit", it's enough to make a man cry, but in "Chappie", it's so forced and telegraphed it's laughable. There isn't enough time for us to fall in love with him before this happens. Granted, Johnny Five had the benefit of a previous movie, but if you haven't earned it, you can't play it.

Who am I supposed to sympathize with here? I know it's supposed to be Chappie, but you're not going to accomplish that when he's talking too fast and continually wiping his non-existent nose like he has a coke problem (because that's a thing gangstas do, apparently). Certainly not the gang-bangers. The Indian programmer? He doesn't have enough personality or backstory to make me care, not even with Hugh Jackman punking his ass. I thought Jackman was a good villain until the movie browbeats us when he throws down the programmer on his desk AT WORK AND HOLDS A GUN TO HIS HEAD. What company wouldn't fire him after that? Is this a South African thing?

I can't discount Chappie's design either. It's not that he's all CG. That never bothered me -- I never thought that Chappie wasn't there. As I understand it, Sharlto Copley did the mocap in-scene, like Andy Serkis. So the fact that the acting is fine is also its downfall -- Chappie moves too humanly. Too fluidly. Chappie is shaped and moves like so close to a humanoid that, from a distance, he could be easily mistaken for a person in a helmet.



Whereas Johnny Five was intentionally designed to look like a clunky robot. Even though he was cute, you could never mistake him for a human. And that was the point of the story. His "tankness" affirms his original purpose for battle and violence, which makes his changeover all the more poignant. Chappie moves like a human who was rotoscoped. Which is what he was.

Robot movies are meant to give the audience a renewed appreciation of life by showing it through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time. And how important free will by showing someone designed not to have any. But none of this gets covered. Chappie acts like a curious toddler, calling his kidnappers "mommy" and "daddy", even when they abuse him. His journey is marred by the ridiculous gang members and his desire to be like them. The ending provokes some agonizingly recondite philosophical questions when human consciousness is transferred into a robot body. Doesn't anyone have anything to say about that? We now have a way to make people immortal and bring them back from the dead? No one wants to acknowledge that the Singularity just happened?

You get a robot body! You get a robot body! Everyone gets a robot body!
From a movie-maker's perspective, it's just kind of sad -- taking these themes and corrupting them with a comic mess of "blings" and "Chappie no crimes". I just want my Short Circuit 3.

P.S. I want to see Chappie vs. the District 9 aliens. Can that be Neill Blomkamp's next movie?
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