The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



It's amazing the difference one film can make. When Neill Blomkamp's District 9 arrived in August of 2009, many hailed him as the savior of smart cinematic science-fiction. Four years later, his second movie, Elysium, proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment, and Blomkamp was suddenly dubbed a hack by many. (For the record, I didn't think it was all that bad.) One would be hard-pressed to think of another filmmaker who faced such an abrupt public about-face after only two pictures. Blomkamp's third film, Chappie, isn't likely to restore his reputation to its former glory.

The story takes place in the future, where human cops have been replaced by robots. Dev Patel plays Deon, the man who designed the model being used by law enforcement. He works for a large weapons company, run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Deon believes he's made a technical breakthrough, having figured out how to give robots consciousness similar to that of humans. Michelle refuses his request to use a damaged robot as a test subject, so he steals the thing instead. The plan works, but Deon is foiled by two criminals, Ninja and Yo-Landi (played by the identically-monikered members of South African rap group Die Antwoord). They want to hijack a robot to commit crimes for them so they can repay a massive debt. Hugh Jackman also stars as one of Deon's less successful colleagues, who's resentful that his robot design wasn't utilized.

Chappie tries to combine the silly sweetness of Short Circuit with the grim, violent satire of RoboCop, and that proves to be as disastrous as it sounds. The movie tackles the age-old theme of nature vs. nurture. Chappie (played by Sharlto Copley, in a motion-capture performance) is very childlike. He has to learn everything from the ground up. Deon attempts to instill him with morals and compassion, while Ninja and Yo-Landi drape him in gold bling, teach him profanity, and instruct him in the ways of being a gangsta. Presumably, this is supposed to be funny, but in the second half, Chappie discovers that his consciousness is threatened, and so he develops a sense of rage and a thirst for retribution. Therefore, you get comical scenes of the robot talking in a hip-hop patter and playing with a rubber chicken bumping up against moments like the one where a man's body is gruesomely torn in half. Chappie almost feels like a comedy that didn't work, so they decided to retrofit it into an action picture instead.

Aside from steadfastly refusing to settle on a tone, the film also demonstrates a shallow sense of story. Much of the plot revolves around Chappie being pulled in different directions by “Maker” (Deon) and “Mommy and Daddy” (Ninja and Yo-Landi). Blomkamp is seemingly trying to explore how what you're taught and how you're raised impacts the person you become, yet he also seems afraid of really digging into that concept. If you're going to tackle such big themes, you need to be willing to ask big questions. Chappie studiously avoids big questions, choosing instead to treat its oversized ideas with superficiality. There's no depth to any of them, with plot developments strung together only at a surface level. In other words, the movie never takes the time to allow its themes to grow in a way that's insightful or thoughtful. It just rushes from one thing to another.

The visual effects are quite good, as is the cinematography, and there are a couple of chuckles to be had as Chappie learns inappropriate things. (His repeated mangling of a twelve-letter profanity is particularly amusing.) These are really the only pleasures to be found. By and large, Chappie is uncommonly annoying in its lack of focus and throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. It doesn't help matters that Ninja and Yo-Landi (the actors) are utterly stiff and unnatural onscreen. We are asked to believe that Chappie views them as parental figures, but there's nothing here to establish a plausible emotional connection. That creates an emptiness that sucks everything else in like a black hole.

Neill Blomkamp is certainly an ambitious filmmaker. District 9 used sci-fi to look at Apartheid, while Elysium used the genre to say something about the importance of universal health care. With Chappie, he's found a metaphor that's simply too big for him to wrangle. Too many things are going on all at once, and the tone is wildly uneven. The nature vs. nurture theme requires a more precise, detailed approach than we get here. Blomkamp deserves credit for his intentions. Sadly, though, his execution of them this time is catastrophic on an entertainment level.

( 1/2 out of four)

Chappie is rated R for violence, language and brief nudity. The running time is 2 hours.

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