By Bill Arceneaux
I recently agreed to re-examine my thoughts on Southland Tales — the sophomoric directorial effort from Donnie Darko filmmaker Richard Kelly — after reading a chapter on the film from the book Approaching the End by Peter Labuza. Initially, I was gravely disappointed, and endlessly puzzled by the movie; a train wreck of ideas like no other, I felt. And coming from such a promising artist as Kelly, Southland Tales was, indeed, troubling. Was Darko a one hit wonder? An accidental hit?
Labuza’s book, however, gave me the sense that I had missed something. Maybe my approach wasn’t the best, I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that, to some, Southland Tales is a sort of hidden treasure. Hidden in plain sight, kinda.
If Richard Kelly is to Neil Blomkamp, and Donnie Darko is to District 9, then Southland Tales is to Chappie. Sure, Blomkamp already had his sophomore film, Elysium, but let’s forget about that for now (he’d probably rather you did as well). Where that movie had clear ideas that were obvious to people of all ages, Chappie is… well… like Southland Tales; a peculiar mish mash of ideas on top of one another, seemingly not equaling to a definitive form. And, if they DO equal to a form, it comes out like Jar Jar Binks. “Frustrating,” “dumpster trash” this has been called by the consensus at large, so much so that going against the grain might be considered an act of contrarian war. Well, I’m a lover, not a fighter. But I will *fight for what I love. (*scratch at passive aggressively).
Much like how I feel I must give Southland Tales another look, other critics ought to do the same for Chappie. Maybe my approach this time around was more open minded, I’m not sure. What I AM sure about is that, to me, Blomkamp’s latest is a hidden treasure. Hidden in plain sight, I mean.
Short Circuit with guns — lots of guns — isn’t entirely correct. This is more in line with a remake of District 9, actually. It follows many of the same beats as Blomkamp’s first film: mockumentary footage, groovy technology in a slum town setting, a raid on villainous headquarters, final boss fight, transcendent ending. Ironically, it’s Elysium, the thick headed tale of space class warfare that strays most from the director’s formula. But, if it isn’t broke, why bother with a fix? Where that movie faltered, Chappie thrives. It thrives by being subtle in its themes, but in your face with personality and absurdity, making for something somewhat memorable.
The idea of robotic police forces is not so absurd. The idea of A.I. isn’t either. But a self-satirical South African gang of thugs/rap group raising a machine like a baby is. I believe it is this one element – above the inspirational cat poster scene or Hugh Jackman acting like Floyd from Accounting by way of Snidely Whiplash – that draws the most criticisms. Because of the appearance of Die Antwoord (real life rap duo, who play themselves, I think), people can’t take this movie seriously. They take it like a Shia Labeouf or James Franco performance art piece or something. It’s a culture shock of a spectacle, one that makes their eyes roll. And, I can see their point.
However – should this movie be taken seriously? It’s not like it’s been supported by anti- or pro-futurists as a political game changer, or anything of the sort. Why can’t it just be silly? I believe I used a similar argument in my review of Jupiter Ascending, but there is a difference. I liked that movie because it was a wreck, and wonderfully so. Chappie I don’t feel is a wreck. I feel as though it’s got a bombastic individualistic nature about it – very much itself, and proud of it. And not just because of Die Antwoord; as a whole, the movie is pretty offbeat, alive with its own character. Maybe it develops it along the way, much like our robot hero?
For the sake of understanding, lets meet it on its own terms – they really aren’t that difficult to grasp, nor is it a task too difficult to perform. Chappie, when broken down, is a near experimental blockbuster with grand implications to the real world. Grander than its crazy plot, even. Questions on morality, family, and spirituality could be asked, if you’re not hung up on gangster parody. Think of that as a gimmicky red herring, if you have to. Or just accept it as part of the movie’s lifestyle and move on to something deeper.
Something deeper. Yes, Chappie has a head on its shoulders, and it’s screwed on well. Not tightly, but well. It’s the misunderstood black sheep of early 2015, and will be ridiculed for years to come. Like Southland Tales was for me. Take a closer look. Try another perspective. What harm can come of that?