It’s been a while since a film has pulled a critical U-Turn with the angular velocity of CHAPPiE. When the first trailer dropped, the internet was abuzz — and to my recollection, no more than 50% of it had to do with Hugh Jackman’s mullet. The remaining buzz among fanboys and critics was that after squandering his inheritance on Matt Damon and exploding planets, the Prodigal Son of low-fi sci-fi had returned to his roots. Granted, the journey hadn’t spanned much distance in style (post-grunge, bullet-riddled Joburg) or substance ([insert name] with a robotic component fights for autonomy). But in heart and energy, he was supposedly back on top…til the vitriolic reviews poured in.
It’s no surprise that CHAPPiE was a box office bomb. Neill Blomkamp’s “anarchic” style has mass-appeal in small doses, but unfiltered it’s downright abrasive: if District 9 was a Linkin Park show, CHAPPiE is a guy with bum wine and Nietzsche tattoo playing guitar with a rusty fork. It doesn’t care if you like it, it just wants to bleed. The trailers only made it worse: when you market your movie like an inspirational mashup of Iron Giant and How To Train Your Dragon, it’s jarring to give the audience Trainspotting-meets-Burning Man. When they ask for Dev Patel, Die Antwoord isn’t the answer.
Nor is it surprising that CHAPPiE received some critical pushback: it’s technologically ludicrous, thematically scattered, and chronically unfocused. It’s also weird, vibrant, and ambitious as hell — and that’s where I have to give it credit. The film itself fails on a few serious levels, but Chappie the character is Baymax-levels of wonderful. Whether he’s “doing heists” or having angsty philosophic conversations with his Creator, he’s a fully-realized joy to behold. And while the story surrounding him is frequently bizarre, I can’t fault Blomkamp too much for overshooting. It angers me that Lucy gets rave reviews as a “campy thrill ride” while a movie that tries (and occasionally succeeds) to execute legitimately bold concepts gets torn to shreds for stupidity. His message may be as subtle as a decapitating robot, but give me “obvious” over “pointless” any day. It’s a commercial misstep worth watching.