Monday, 22 February 2016

Chappie Chat Number 2: Chappie Is Number Johnny Five

The title is deliberate, of course, as is the ordering of these posts (ooh look, isn't Squid clever with his structures and shit or whatever).  Chappie doesn't riff on Short Circuit, but on Short Circuit Two.

(Spoilers below)

Well, obviously it's reminiscent of both. But then it has to be; it's drawing from the same source. Looking for the wellspring of sci-fi culture clash comedy and stopping at Short Circuit would be like John Hanning Speke deciding he'd found the Nile's source while he could still see the beaches of the Mediterranean. Chappie is as much Short Circuit's metaphorical sibling as its metaphorical descendant.  About the only direct reference I noticed to the '86 film was the big deal Chappie made over his first book, and even then it's an inversion (kind of a cute one too, filled with more childlike devotion and wonder in a few seconds than either Short Circuit film manages throughout its runtime).

In contrast, there are at least two ways in which Chappie reminds me of Johnny Five's sophomore appearance. One is the presence of a stereotypical Asian tech-wiz as the main human character; the guy who takes upon himself the role of moral compass for his sentient robot. Dev Patel does rather better here than Fisher Stevens, of course, since now at least the cliche Asian geek role is played by someone who actually is (British) Asian. Plus, of course, Deon Wilson is an actual character rather than a series of "comedy" failures to master English (the interiority of Benjamin Jahrvi is so totally dismissed as irrelevant the sequel can't even be bothered to give him the same surname as he had in the original). This is miserably small potatoes for 27 years of supposed "progress", obviously. It might be possible to argue Chappie is further behind its own time than Short Circuit 2 was; I lack the knowledge or experience to comment productively on this.
John Hanning Speke
John Hanning Speke
John Hanning Speke
John Hanning Speke
John Hanning Speke
John Hanning Speke
John Hanning Speke
John Hanning Speke

Let's go back to this idea of a moral compass. Both films offer a choice for its robot to make about the approach to law and order it will take. In Chappie, the choice is between Deon's demands to obey South Africa's rules, and Yolandee, Ninja and Amerika insisting on their need to pull a heist to save their lives. In Short Circuit, the choice is obviously really between Ben's work ethic and refusal to cut corners and the get-rich-quick schemes of Ritter and Oscar. But as well as con-men and bank robbers, Johnny Five gets to meet these fascinating gentlemen.

For a few brief moments, then, the struggle for influence on Johnny's behaviour is between a stereotypical Asian brainbox and a stereotypical Hispanic street gang.

So let's pretend this is important to both films; do you follow the rules of the government, or the laws of the streets? Mainly this is just something I want to talk about, and I see an opportunity to shove a peg into a hole where it doesn't really fit. That said, despite Chappie's incoherence and Short Circuit 2's racism, there is material here we can mine.

Let's take the older film first. There's much to criticise here, and I've gone over some of it already.  In addition to the issues with Benjamin, the Los Locos gang appears just long enough to be laughed at and viewed as an obvious bad influence, and then are cleared away. These aren't people, they're a speed-bump on Johnny Five's journey towards becoming the kind of person powerful white people would like him to be. The terminus of this road comes at the film's end, when Johnny and Benjamin pass their citizenship tests and become Americans. We're supposed to feel happy because a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and whining babies descended from colonial murderers have decided they can be considered "one of them".  "Mr Five, how do you feel?" "How do I feel? I feel like I've been forced to assimilate an utterly false historical narrative pushed upon me by reflexive imperialists out of a deeply problematic devotion to the idea of 'integration'".

On the other hand, it's worth noting that the worst crimes Los Locos actually commit is a carjack that they can't manage, and a repainting of Johnny's chassis almost certainly done with his permission. All the real criminals in the film are charismatic white men who pose as your friend. Hell, Ritter literally sells Johnny for profit because he can't see the robot as anything but a method by which to acquire capital.  As criticisms of rampant capitalism go, that's a very familiar one, but since I'm talking about the film anyway, it's worth nodding at.

Onto Chappie. Somehow this manages to be both much better and noticeably worse than the earlier film. On the one hand, the battle between what is legal and what is right is at least considered here, and in a way I quite like. Deon's twitchy condemnations of gangs is present, of course, but the film doesn't frame them as sympathetic, or not entirely so anyway. Meanwhile,  Ninja, Yolandee and Amerika are portrayed neither as blameless victims of circumstances nor irredeemable gun-toting bastards. Things aren't perfect by any means. The split in attitudes between Ninja and Yolandee falls far too much in line with gender stereotypes, and Yolandee is the least developed character in general. Neither of these are problems I want to dismiss. Still, whilst I'm entirely the wrong person to comment on whether this is a realistic depiction of a Johannesburg gang, it feels like a balanced one. Certainly Ninja and Amerika don't come out of this smelling of king protea - their abandoning of Chappie to a violent assault is played for maximum unpleasantness (and is another nod to Short Circuit 2, of course). But the final battle between the gang and MOOSE makes it very clear that the true villain here isn't a no-mark bunch of drug-dealers, but hyperbolic police reaction to same.

Except of course, as I argued last time, it isn't really the police we're talking about at all. I suggested then that this was a strange tack to take in a story in part about the overuse of force in maintaining "order" in urban South Africa. But this strange burying of the lede is just as present in Ninja's gang, which comprises of two white people and a man of colour from the US (who of course is the first member of the gang and the main cast in general to die; blork).

So where are the black South Africans?

Some careful framing is needed here. South Africa is not the United States, a society I have some small knowledge of but which I can only observe imperfectly from a distance. Still less is it the UK, the only country I have spent more than three weeks in a row in throughout my entire life. I'm working from very little direct data when I suggest that any consideration of the problems that inevitably arise from a militarised police force has to necessarily focus on non-white groups, irrespective of country. I can't see how this couldn't follow directly from both South Africa's status as a former colonial holding and from its apartheid history, but I'm uncomfortably far from my comfort zone here.

Still, though, where the hell are they? By my recollection there is all of one black African in the entire film that gets any lines; a generic police captain who gets maybe two dozen words to say in total. Otherwise the action seems to take part entirely without reference to the native population. I can see a surface argument that says including black South Africans in Ninja's gang would be its own problem - "Squid doesn't think a Johannesburg street gang is realistic unless there's a black guy in it!" - but you can't wave away a fuck-up by arguing it would have been possible to fuck up going in the opposite direction. Some forty-four million people live in the negative space of this film, pushed to the side whilst famous international movie stars are flown in to talk about how they should be shooting at the locals.

And it's for this reason that ultimately I have to join the chorus of those arguing Chappie fails to really satisfy. Not because what it says is scattershot and undeveloped - forcing us to use inference and extrapolation to construct for ourselves the subtext of a film is precisely the kind of thing I like doing. Chappie isn't a disappointment because of what it says. It's a disappointment because of what it refuses to say.


Gooder said...

Short Circuit Two was rubbish but I'll offer in it's defense of it's limited depiction of crime that it was a family film, which Chappie very much isn't!

Anyway I think Chappie is pretty poor from a standard filmmaking point of view as well.

The plotting is largely by the numbers and full of characters doing strange things. Like when Chappie forgets about the detonator to destroy MOOSE mid fight until basically everyone's dead.

Why does Hugh Jackman spend time trying to kill all the gang members with MOOSE when he just has to kill Dev and has a number of opportunities to do so?

Nobody seems to be that bothered that Deon makes one of the biggest science breakthroughs in history by developing true AI. He then basically turns out to have discovered immortality in a cop out, people live ending that robs him of any significance in his sacrifice for Chappie.

And that's just a couple of the dodgy writing moments.

The performances are all over the place. Patel's is pretty decent and Copley's mo-cap work is pretty good. However Weaver phones it in, Jackman hams it up, Die Antwood are both basically terrible and the rest of the supporting cast appear to be doing pantomime a lot of the time.

Blomkamp again throws in jarring devices like CCTV camera footage when he can't think of another way to show something. Then flips back to bland cinematography.

And as mentioned I really don't get the sense the film really knows what it wants to be.

A satire akin to Robocop? A piece about the nature of AI and what it is to be 'alive'? A sort of Frankenstein story? A political piece on the violence in South Africa? A robotic version of ET? A drama? A comedy? It really doesn't know.

Blomkamp as a director seems to be stuck between Nolan (lots of big ideas) and Bay (bombast, ott violence) without threatening to master either approach.

SpaceSquid said...

I don't remember Chappie forgetting the detonator, so much as prioritising something else (keeping his mother safe? I forget). Nor am I sure Jackman is going after Patel; his nominal target is Chappie but I think he's happy enough just wasting people. He's been allowed to unleash his testosterone-fuelled wet-dream walking tank/dick-compensator; he's gonna use it to gun down as many people as possible. I'm sympathetic to the idea that this isn't remotely clear, though.

I actually think it's a strength of the film that no-one gives a shit about AI, other than Jackman who hates the idea. I absolutely love that Patel tries to sell Weaver on how indescribable a game changer this is but she couldn't give two shits because it's not immediately relevant to the company's business strategy. That just couldn't feel more right to me.

I think you're on much firmer ground over the ending. I'd much rather Chappie had failed to save his creator, on balance. I'm not convinced a sacrifice is invalidated by it ultimately proving unnecessary, but I found it kind of a cop-out too.

Regarding the action, I think that's a fair ((rip off of) Robo-) cop, though I found Die Antwood pretty fascinating - it's hard for me to tell how bad someone's acting is when they're representing a nationality and a subculture of which I am so ignorant. I'll take your word for it that the cinematography is bland; that's your wheelhouse rather than mine. I do confess though I can't remember being particularly impressed at any point other than how good a job the CGI department had done, which would certainly suggest you're on to something.

Lastly, I'm not sure we're actually in too much disagreement about the film being a mess. It's just I find it a fascinating mess. Yes, it's incoherent, but you can be incoherent for less interesting reasons than just throwing so much into the mix as Chappie does here. So sure, nothing gets space to breathe, but better ideas be suffocated than starve to death.