Box Office Democracy: Chappie
Chappie is an amazingly frustrating movie, perhaps singular in its ability to vex me. I enjoyed so much of it while I was watching it, director Neill Blomkamp is quite good at evoking an emotional response, but in the days since I’ve seen Chappie I have grown steadily angrier at it. It’s a movie that’s so tone deaf to the world around it and so unnecessarily. All of the pieces of this movie I enjoyed could have been contained in a framework that was not so brashly ignorant of the important issues it brings up only to causally discard.
I can’t imagine anyone thinking it is ok to make a movie that so casually deals with the militarization of the police force in 2015. It’s central to the plot that an arms manufacturer makes all of these high tech police robots. They also talk about how, until the third act of the film, that the robots have drastically reduced crime but they seemingly pointedly ignore the ethical ramifications of all of this and after all the policing problems we’ve had in the United States these past hundred years or so it makes it so hard to just turn off my brain and get in to the rest of the film at that point.
There are other terrible social statements in Chappie that are similarly infuriating. The entire moral conflict in the movie is centered on the idea that poor people are worse parents than rich people. Chappie is a movie set in Johannesburg South Africa in a future so near that it has Anderson Cooper 360 as the news exposition source but has no black African characters of any prominence at all. I don’t mean to say that every movie needs to be political or that every misstep in these areas is a fatal one but there’s only so much I can put up with and once the dam is broken I can’t help but notice all the water that was being held back.
It’s not all bad here though; Blomkamp is a good enough director to wring some good stuff out of this movie. I was moved to tears on more than one occasion by the plight of Chappie and to a lesser extent his far more two-dimensional cohorts. The movie is consistently visually interesting, the action sequences are compelling and interesting, and while they’re aggressively not my aesthetic there’s a clear message to the production and costume design (particularly of the Die Antwood duo) that is refreshing when you consider how lazy so many filmmakers can be these days.
While I come to praise Blomkamp the director I am also here to bury Blomkamp the screenwriter as the script is like a sloppy film school effort. There’s commentary on the nature of god, mortality, and ethics that seemed trite when I heard it from a bro with a backwards cap the first week of intro to philosophy freshman year of college. I’ve put up with worse but if Blomkamp, along with his wife and partner Terri Tatchell, are going to be Oscar-nominated screenwriters for the rest of their lives then at some point they have to move past all this basic garbage. Not because it’s what the Academy demands of them, it absolutely doesn’t, but because we need better scripts out there and these two showed such promise.
Perhaps promise is the problem here. District 9 was such a surprising delightful film when it came out and we all assumed that we would have years of superb efforts from the people behind it but what if that was just everything they would ever be? Between Elysium and Chappie I’ve seen no growth and perhaps regression from Blomkamp and Tratchell. If it’s true that this is all we can expect from them, these kind of above average yet maddeningly politically obtuse movies, then I guess it’s better than another Michael Bay or Uwe Boll in the world but we should want something better and I hope we can get it and, above all I hope Blomkamp doesn’t make an Alien movie that makes me this angry.