Back on New Year’s Eve, film director Neill Blomkamp leaked a series of Instagram photos of pre-production art for a sequel within the Alien franchise that was never even pitched to FOX studios. Neill subtitled each item, including a costume-evolution for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and hinted that a full script had been prepared, which would perhaps negate everything within the timeline post Aliens. After an overwhelming internet reaction, Blomkamp revealed weeks later that FOX had approached him for the project, but he was hesitant to accept. And on the eve of his new film’s release, he finally accepted.
So let’s deal with the problems.
Blomkamp, a South African advertising director with a flair for studio CGI on an indie budget, was singled out by producer Peter Jackson as the heir-apparent to a major motion picture based on the HALO video game franchise. When the project fell though (on a near historic scale), Jackson offered to produce the film District 9 based on one of four pitch reels Blomkamp supplied for his HALO gig. District 9 was an undeniable success; celebrating a marriage of dystopias, sexy-future-weapons, horrifyingly grounded race-relations, cinema-verite, mustache-twirling villains, waves of defeat and the best film adaptation (regarding a non-existent video game base IP) in the history of games. Whatever Paul W.S. Anderson did in the 90s, Blomkamp seemed poised to provide a counterpoint. Of course this could have never come from your standard American nerd-type; this had to born from the origins of an outsider on more levels than we could ever prepare for. When a South African ad man with delusions of interstellar race-relations declares humanities last hope to be hidden amidst a Brazil-level bureaucrat’s nepotism hire, holy crap you have to listen.
The horror of production is that this first outting (based on a 2007 short) and its overwhelming success seems to have green-lit all three of Blomkamp’s other short pitch videos. One, an Office Space-esque comedy which was never produced. But Elysium was. We sent Matt Damon into space to battle Jodie Foster over some healthcare metaphors. I’d genuinely love to spend the words defending this clear “sophomore slump,” but in recent weeks Blomkamp came right out an apologized for wasting our time with that one. It’s been a while since a filmmaker directly took responsibility for submarining a film that assembled all the right pieces and never combined them into plausible configuration. It’s such an unused move that, while genuine or not, I was so taken aback I could never deny it the pardon. After all, I’ve seen cinema so exponentially worse that was never apologized for, a C-studio Sci-Fi throwing itself off the roof is nearly historic.
Which brings us back to the cultural geography of CHAPPiE. Here is a movie about a robot that learns to love, possibly going up against Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman (two infinitely award-generating tentpoles) in the exact same setting and delivery method as the beloved District 9, conceived and broadcasts by a director who has previously done K. Dick level social commentary, weaponized by Bay-level production hidden in capital-H Human stories. And again, drawing from a 2007 VFX pitch reel that introduces both a functional CHAPPiE and several of his most important combative moments.
Unfortunately, the film released is not only bad, but perhaps personally historically bad. Not since I Know Who Killed Me have I felt an overwhelming need to scream at everyone from the writer to the actors to the costume designers to the set designers to the people who put out bagels for the actors to have fuel to make this. I’m not exaggerating. Within the ArcLight theater, my friends and I began planning our revenge upon bagel-cutters, then worked our way up.
CHAPPiE presupposes a Johannesburg where all police presence has been replaced by robots who are good with guns. The twist that separates this from RoboCop is a repair shop wherein one particular robot has seen a string of terrible, body-exploding bad luck. When the scientist (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) decides to perform non-corporate sanctioned upgrades on this disposable unit, he manages to create a robotic consciousness just as “not-evil” but still totally-evil gang kidnaps both robot and creator. In a twist the trailers successfully conceal, the lead actors of the film at this point become S.A. rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (of Die Antwoord) who convert the now semi-living consciousness lifeform into a Rudeboy C-3PO that spends an entire Act helping them Grand Theft Auto their way towards a criminal buy-out, by way of tricking their new robot pal into royally fucking up civilians and making mental-gymnastics acceptance of increasing levels of exploitative interpersonal relationships. This isn’t the kind of story where someone is taught to love at the very end, and they make a stand; this is the story where someone is taught to love at the outset, and an unbearable toxic masculinity immediately replaces their values, on a scale that makes me wish I was back in film school, because this final paper would write itself.
CHAPPiE moves beyond ignorance into an almost visible hatred on its audience, and then suddenly cloys for solidarity when the sub-sub-sub-villain Hugh Jackman (plugged into a VR headset combo with moving monitors that reads to even a novice as a hilariously incompatible system) activates an obvious and borderline familiar RoboCop nemesis to hunt CHAPPiE and his criminal cohorts down.
Five minutes before this, CHAPPiE bursts into the factory that created him and hunts Hugh Jackman for sport, only to maim him as a hilarious lesson. Once the, for lack of a better term, Mini-Boss robot activates, we enter a five minute period that hints at the manic future-violence of District 9’s third Act, and bails after one memorable death and two video game-y weapon variations. Hugh and (presumed) mega-Villain Sigourney Weaver are almost immediately forgotten, as the last fifteen minutes of the film concern an all-capital L Laughable exploration of both existentialism and, more explicitly, The Singularity. Without actually spoiling anything, except my overwhelming disgust, these last fifteen render all deaths, loss and sacrifice within the film’s structure COMPLETELY invalid, and at one point, even double down on the idea that magic technology can save more magic technology.
What the filmmaker almost certainly intended was to jumpstart some discussion over immortality, neural replication and the omnipresent threat of digitizing humanity against a backdrop that suggested, apolitically, that some parts of the world are either already fully invested in this transition or, more horrifically, bound to be the test subjects for a brave new world. Instead, the film that was so heavily layered in thematic relations bails at the very last moment, and never replaces its intellectual shortcoming with any sort of action blitz that would otherwise distract us from the unsolvable horror show presented.
By the time credits roll, more than half the remaining namable cast has been digitized into permanent robot form, with no questions or doubt or open-ended concern over this new interpretation of existence. This isn’t a complicated or even a bad way of handling the story/characters presented; it’s incomprehensible. It exists in direct opposition to every opportunity we spent seventy minutes orchestrating. It is a resolution that negates the fact you even watched a movie. It is, quite simply, unacceptable.
So this Blomkamp journey has led many to assume that the production art leak, and it’s inevitable social push leading to a gig, was a shrewdly designed marketing scheme to distract from the inevitable critical disappointment in CHAPPiE, and instead rally us behind the idea the mind behind the beloved District 9 would be not only continuing the spirit of a money-printing franchise, but also negating the existence of its lesser entries. In the wake of said coverage, there’s been a lot of quotes taken from Blomkamp that reveal him to be an “ideas first” man, who would almost prefer to not direct in the future. Having suffered the thinkpieces already written on the subject, in conjunction with a movie so bad I worried our entire theater would self-harm, I understand why the critical world is writing Blomkamp off. But I’m not.
Every part of this story looks like the traditional Hollywood Fear Model. An outsider made something honest and cool with no oversight, and everyone got in line to throw money at the next comparable idea. Elysium and CHAPPiE were those starting point ideas, but now that they’re burned through, Blomkamp has the opportunity to do both a wholly original IP which builds on all he’s learned in the last five years, but he’s also done the impossible and endeared the HATEFUL INTERNET toward seeing what he can inject into the Alien franchise. While this robot cop nonsense film is unbearably, unacceptably, undeniably awful, the potential to believe that this is the last shred of a studio system nightmare is also plausible. The deft mastery of tone, timing, and awe displayed in District 9 cannot be the product of sheer chance. Let’s all agree this robotic footnote never happened, and gauge the creator by his new flagship, instead of the take-home assignments.