Have you ever walked out of a cinema feeling like you’ve just discovered a lost classic of your generation? Have you ever wanted to get straight online and tell all your friends how much you loved it? And have you ever, whilst staring into the dark abyss of social media, realised that you were the only one who even liked it? That happened to me a few Fridays ago whilst trying to tell the world my love of Chappie.
Chappie is Neill Blomkamp’s latest film. His previous works have included his stunning debut, District 9, and the flawed but entertaining follow up, Elysium. The latter, despite having a superb aesthetic that fused future technologies with the ramshackle architecture of slums and favelas, left people wondering whether or not the weaknesses of Elysium’s storytelling were down to Bloomkamp flying solo without the guidance of District 9’s producer, and legendary Kiwi filmmaker, Peter Jackson. In turn, this would mean that Bloomkamp’s debut feature would have been nothing without Jackson’s tutelage, and that his reputation had been built off of the back of a man he is nothing without.
For many people, Chappie confirmed those fears. For me, it crushed them. What I saw in Chappie was the deliberate work of a director infusing his film with the cinematic trends and tropes of old school genre filmmaking. Chappie has a kind of punk to it, an anarchism that reminded me Braindead or Bad Taste (both works of is mentor and influence, Jackson). It is a film that knows its audience and panders to them shamelessly, almost aggressively.
Take the film’s antagonist for example, Vincent Moore, played by an intimidating Hugh Jackman. Moore plays with a rugby ball when frustrated, he quotes scripture to bring divine protection against evidence of robotic sentience, and he uses threats of physical violence to shame his weaker co-workers. He is a small minded, church going, gym hitting Jock. Here is your figure of hate; here is the target for your aggression; and here is your symbol of bullying conformism.
It’s a broad and unfair stereotype. He represents Christianity but he clearly doesn’t represent all Christians. He’s a talisman for the macho sports culture, but not everyone who’s ever tossed a ball around behaves like a shaved ape. Bloomkamp’s choice of bad guy is a clear statement of his intentions. Moore looks how society wants him to look and believes what society tells him to believe. This film is for anyone who has ever tried to wander away from that path, only to have their leash drag them back in line. It doesn’t care if its stereotypes are sweeping or its characterisations are biased. This film is defiant in its convictions. It was made to please no other audience than the one Blomkamp identifies with himself.
His protagonists are further proof of this. Many have dismissed the inclusion of South African rapper duo Die Antwoord as stunt casting. But I think they fit perfectly with the film’s attitude. They are loud, rowdy and riotous. They’re characters live on the outskirts of society. They are outlaws and punks. Ninja, the male of the two, has the words Evil Boy tattooed above a picture of a kid with a comically large penis. They care nothing for the norms of civilisation and fight against them with every fibre of their being.
There are many who think that their larger than life personas are grating, but I think that their broad performances strengthen the film’s connection to the 80’s fantasy and sci-fi films that Chappie was made as a love letter too. Back then, there were many films looking to use their characters to create an exaggerated, outlandish world that defied the conventions of the ones we knew. These films would cast such parts with actors who may have been wooden, inexperienced, or just plain bad. But their physical appearances or bizarre personalities added a wonder and intrigue to these beautifully detailed worlds.
The 80’s connection can be seen in other ways, such as the walking tank dubbed The Moose, which looks more than a little like Robocop’s Enforcement Droid. The 80’s references are so eclectic that the film can sometimes encompass a number of genres, some of which do not comfortably fit together. This has been the critic’s strongest argument against the film. That it is a confusing mess of tones and styles. That it is too whimsical for an adult audience and too violent to be a kid’s movie. To me it is a wish fulfilling mix of the films I used to enjoy with my parents, and the films I used to watch behind their backs.
It satisfies two itches with one scratch; although I do concede that these itches are specific to my exact demographic. I’m a millennial with a jealousy of Generation X-er’s who grew up with genre auteurs; directors and writers who were constantly pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in mainstream entertainment. I’m a pretentiously, self-proclaimed outsider with a constant need for the art I consume to push the boundaries of decency and challenge societies perceptions of accepted norms.
After reading some of the reviews of Chappie I had to remind myself that the films we call classics now were sometimes ripped to pieces by the critical establishment of the day. Films such as The Warriors, Mad Max, and Labyrinth were all reviled. Similarly, it was audiences that made films such as Star Wars and The Terminator classics, not the Sunday newspapers. Sadly, with the internet strengthening the concept of critical consensus, it’s unlikely we will see films in this day and age recover from this kind of critical panning.
Critics, for instance, have been comparing the central performance of Chappie to that of Jar Jar Binks. They found his hyperactivity and infantile speech patterns to be aggravating, like looking after an obnoxious toddler for ninety minutes. If you cannot get behind the child like nature of Chappie this film isn’t going to work for you; just as this film would not work if he were any less of a child.
This is where my experience and the experience of my fellow critics hit its biggest disparity. Where they went into the film thinking it was going to be an essay on Artificial Intelligence set in a dystopic future (to be fair, that is how the film was marketed), what they got was a film about child exploitation. Chappie is not an allegory for superior, automated intelligence, but for how impressionable minds, eager to learn, can be exploited by the heartless adults whose motives dictate their lives.
Chappie worked best for me when the naïve robot was faced with the worst sides of human nature. You could really empathise with his vulnerability; plus, the predatory reality of this dystopic landscape, juxtaposed with Chappie’s sweet, innocent nature, was heartbreakingly infuriating.
This is an especially potent subject matter if you live in a country like South Africa, where child exploitation is a huge societal problem. Gangs entice children from young ages and groom them with approval. When that approval is taken away, the children will do anything to get it back, including committing violent and criminal acts. This is the underlying subtext of Chappie, and discussion on this subject is something that the conversation surrounding the film is lacking. When the point of your film has gone so unnoticed by the majority of the people watching it, the filmmaker must take some responsibility. Although, I suspect that part of the reason this aspect of the film is being ignored is that people would rather talk about the speculative nature of Simulated Consciousness, rather than the real world issue of child manipulation.
Chappie was never a film that was ever courting to be liked. It was a film that knew it was destined to be loved by the small amount of people it was speaking to. People who have felt the pangs of lowliness and isolation in a world to which they will always be strangers. People whose personalities have never really fit their surroundings. People who, like Chappie, would watch He-Man on the TV and shout “I Have The Power!” right along with him.