I personally reject the basic idea of a “guilty pleasure” – if you enjoy something, why should you feel ashamed about enjoying it? Yet Chappie is that rare thing: a movie that perfectly encapsulates the “guilty pleasure” genre, something that I feel bad for enjoying due to it being a narrative and stylistic mess, but a mightily enjoyable one at that. Director Neill Blomkamp is a truly distinctive director and in what is only his third feature, Chappie is his bid to become a fully fledged auteur. There isn’t a single frame of this movie that you could confuse with the sensibility of any other filmmaker operating today.
Set in the same crime-ridden Johannesburg of his debut feature, District 9, Chappie opens with the same mockumentary framing device, suggesting initially that this is a return to form after the humourless Elysium. We are told by a series of talking heads at the outset of the film that what we will see Chappie do over the course of the film “changed humanity forever” – we never see those talking heads again and we don’t really get an insight into how he changed humanity forever, with the exception of the not-very-ambiguous attempt at an ambiguous ending. Blomkamp intended this to be the first part of a trilogy. With this being one of the year’s most significant box office flops, its safe to say we will probably never know how.
The movie takes place at the Tetra Vaal weapons corporation, which manufactures weapons to the police and government, namely the police droids that govern the city. Weapons manufacturer Deon (Dev Patel) is well-known for manufacturing these police droids, but has a passion for creating the first artificial intelligence robot, something that his boss (Sigourney Weaver, in full “where’s my paycheque” mode) finds laughable. After being kidnapped by a group of thugs who want him to reprogram a police bot to fight for them, he kidnaps some equipment and creates Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley in full “it’s the sweetie man” mode), the first fully intelligent AI, who isn’t actually that intelligent due to having Die Antwoord as surrogate parents.
With District 9, Neill Blomkamp and his wife Terri Tatchell were nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their efforts, something which increasingly seems laughable. That movie was Blomkamp’s only directorial effort to date that has good, funny dialogue – and that’s because it was largely improvised. Chappie is still recognisably a movie by the same director, but just one by an Academy award-nominated screenwriter who didn’t contribute extensive amounts of dialogue in the movie he was nominated for, and now is relied upon to write dialogue in the same style as his debut. His prestigious status is presumably the reason why nobody intervened when he made Hugh Jackman scream “you are making me as cross a frog in a sock!” or when he wrote multiple scenes involving a rubber chicken, one of which starts with a robot saying “I don’t care about the bloody chicken”.
Yet it is precisely these elements that make it so distinctive and so entertaining. It is undoubtably a grand folly, but it is far more enjoyable than the majority of movies being released by major studios. The major problem I imagine most viewers will have with the film is Die Antwoord, here playing themselves. I wrote recently that I had a problem with Home, the mediocre new Dreamworks animation, as Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez voice characters yet had their own songs dominate the soundtrack. This lead me to confusion as to whether RiRi and J-Lo were established artists in the Home universe, or whether the characters were just listening to recordings of their own music they had recorded professionally.
In Chappie, Die Antwoord play themselves as thugs who live in an abandoned factory, which suggests that they aren’t successful musicians in the Blomkamp universe. Yet they are repeatedly listening to their own music (it often plays like a feature-length music video or an advert for Die Antwoord’s greatest hits album) and have graffiti containing all their own lyrics covering the walls, which begs the question, why are they in debt to gangsters and why are they living in an abandoned factory? In an emotional scene where Ninja throws a photo of Yolandi Visser away, the photo is clearly a press still taken from a professional photoshoot, which only further adds to the confusion. The narrative is such a shambolic mess, yet compelling in spite of this (or perhaps because of this).
So why do I enjoy this movie, one I will happily admit is a blockbuster cluster-fuck for the ages? Because Blomkamp is a director who actually cares about the characters he (very badly) writes. He may always be rushing to the next action sequence, yet he invokes actual emotion and character development that means the action sequences actually have stakes worth fighting for. Blomkamp has frequently described Michael Bay as an influence, which is true in his fondness for action, even if his sequences are fully coherent in comparison with Bay’s approach; yet the fact he cares about his characters and has a narrative ambition beyond robots hitting each other renders him one of “the good guys”. He can make big noisy blockbuster movies, but can make them with a passion and an ambition that the directors he is influenced by don’t possess.
Chappie is destined to have a new-found life as a cult film, which is surprising considering how well Blomkamp’s sensibilities fit in with the mainstream. Nobody will ever refer to it as perfect storytelling, or even a perfect film, but it is a charming mess and a guilty pleasure I shouldn’t feel guilty for wholeheartedly embracing.