Aren’t you yearning to find a new 80s cult flick that got eviscerated by the critics but has become a favorite guilty pleasure? I mean, fan cannot live by Carpenter alone, am I right? Well, look no further than this week’s new release, Neill Blomkamp’s “so bad it’s rad” sci-fi CHAPPiE. It is already the source of intense debate with my critic friends… I refuse to believe an auteur like Blomkamp created a film with such a pervasive B-movie aesthetic by sheer accident or tragic misstep. He has to have made this movie, as it is, entirely on purpose. Otherwise, it would be the worst thing just about ever.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to create a film that does genuine homage to sci-fi action movies of the 80s without looking like a tragic hipster made it? At what point does a film fan age out of appreciating unbelievable plots, stereotypical acting and a bombastic hip hop music score in the service of a larger cinematic whole? How could a huge percentage of Luc Besson films survive without a fan base willing to just jump on board his graffiti ridden world of haves and have-nots, suspending a little good taste in the process? There has to be room for committed statement films that try too hard but keep their heart in the right place.
CHAPPiE takes place in a dystopian near future, where in South Africa a new government funded corporate-created robot police force keeps Johannesburg’s less savory elements in check. Inventor Deon Wilson (Dev Patel, who is doing double duty in releases this weekend, co-starring in both CHAPPiE and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is working on a sentient upgrade to their police robot, and uploads, in secret, some new software that introduces an “essence” into a damaged droid, whose battery will drain within days. Everyone, from thugs Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) Ninja (Ninja, partners with Yo-Landi in the South African rap group Die Antwoord) and America (Jose Cantillo), to a crime kingpin in cornrows, Hippo (Brandon Auret, speaking in subtitled Johannesburg slang) want to use CHAPPiE to aid in their own nefarious plans. Deon also has competition at his company, which is run by unfeeling, money grubbing corporate femme CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, squeezing what dimensionality she can from a one note role). That competition is from caricatured villain Vincent Moore (mullet sporting Hugh Jackman), who will stop at nothing to have his own mammoth weapon-wielding robot design used in place of those designed by Wilson.
CHAPPiE, (voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley) starts out like a baby, and learns as a child does, experiencing everything as if for the very first time, mimicking those around him to build his morality and his understanding of the world. When he is with his “maker” Wilson, he learns positive morals. When with Ninja and Yolandi, he learns a more subjective convenient moral code, partly because Ninja lies to him about stealing and killing, or what he tells CHAPPiE is getting his property back, or making people “sleep”.
So, given the plot line and characters, to what, in reference to a low budget european action film sensibility, or an intentional 80s cheese, do I refer? For those movies, one must suspend judgment and just go with the action, regardless of the film’s many issues. There are big problems with just about every aspect of this film. Wilson makes repeatedly inexplicable decisions, one of which is returning to teach CHAPPiE after being released by the seemingly maniacal Ninja and his crew, who nearly kill him after kidnapping him and stealing CHAPPiE. Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika are introduced as amoral thrill killers, but their moral compass is forever on the fritz, and we as an audience are meant to feel compassion and connection with them when we see their kinder sides. Non-actors Ninja and Yo-Landi of rap group Die Antwoord are heavily featured, or essentially the stars of the film, and are surprisingly good, but they appear in a never-ending parade of rap designer threads. How does Ninja, given they live in a super-cool but dirty and graffiti-ridden warehouse, have a newly hand crafted graphic t-shirt in every scene? How does Yolandi keep the brightly colored or super white postmodern fashions so clean in such filth? Where is their washing machine and who operates it? The villains in this flick are laughably one dimensional. Hippo is forever brandishing his machine gun and talking trash. He looks like an extra from 1979’s Mad Max or 1995’s Waterworld. Jackman as Moore stomps around the office dressed like Muldoon in Jurassic Park, complete with Aussie accent, cargo shorts, and a strapped on handgun. When he’s not threatening to kill people or making the sign of the cross, he spends most of his time brooding and throwing rage-shade at Wilson.
And yet…those who enjoy cult films with a 80s foreign film aesthetic like 81’s Diva, and sci-fi actioners of that period like 87’s RoboCop, 81’s Escape from New York, 87’s The Runn
ing Man will see them all reflected in CHAPPiE. From the thumping hip hop-inspired score by Hans Zimmer (!!) to the Besson film influenced art direction and production design, the entire film is a series of derivations from earlier movies. Given that Blomkamp is so meticulous in his directorial choices, things like the unrealistic and impractical costume design, the ridiculous plot devices such as the pointed use of 5 Play Stations in the service of an extremely important part of the film’s climax, Jackman’s and Weaver’s extremely caricatured roles, and the manipulation of the audience’s sympathies for characters with moral choices vacillating from clear black to clear white, MUST be intentional. Even if they aren’t, all these elements coalesce into something with a strong 80s B-movie vibe that for those who can go with it, can be highly entertaining.
CHAPPiE needs one and all to leave practicality, a desire for authentic social statements, and distaste for over-the-top story and character at home. If you can’t do that, stay home yourself.
But can you say, “That was horrible. I loved it!”?
If you can , if you’d like to see something that genuinely harkens back to the movies of the late 80s and early 90s you loved in spite of yourself and those movies’ many ridiculous aspects, CHAPPiE is just right.
2 out of 5 on a good movie scale, 4 out of 5 on a so bad it’s good scale.