Cody Clarke & John D’Amico on ‘Chappie’


Chappie (2015)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
120 min.

This past Wednesday, John D’Amico and I attended a free advance screening of this film. The following is a conversation between us, discussing everything from the film to the screening itself:

Cody: What were your thoughts about this one going in? I remember you saying you heard some negative buzz, but I hadn’t heard anything whatsoever. [Ed. note: No reviews had come in on Rotten Tomatoes yet]

John: Yeah, I heard some swirlings on Twitter and stuff that it looked dumb, and I know everyone hated Elysium (which I didn’t see) but I really didn’t know a thing about it walking in. Didn’t see any trailers, just the one poster. I still go ride or die for District 9, so I was optimistic in that regard.

Cody: Yeah, District 9 is fantastic. I didn’t see Elysium either—I could smell the stink on that one from a mile away. Chappie, all I ever saw of it was the poster for it, never saw any trailers or TV spots. Barely knew anything about it other than that it’s about a robot being somewhat gangster. If it wasn’t for the free screening, I honestly probably woulda waited for Netflix Instant to see it. Do you think you woulda went and saw in theaters?

John: Well the reviews are all, so far, aggressively negative, so probably not. It’s definitely got that vibe like it was dumped, from the March release to the quiet campaign.

Cody: Yeah, it’s weird seeing Blomkamp have a movie drop not in May or June. Alright so, the screening—we were I think the last two people admitted into the theater. And the only seats available were right in front. When’s the last time you saw a movie in the front row? I think my last one might have been as far back as Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, because I went with some kids I knew and their mom, and the kids were obsessed with sitting in the front row or something. Never saw a movie with them again.

John: I took the front row intentionally for Blade Runner’s re-release, and as you’ll recall, the front or damn near it for [the original] King Kong. I love it for big movies with locked-down camera shots and lots of scenery. Otherwise, it’s disorienting. The last time I got wedged up there for space reasons was Anchorman 2, where it sucked out whatever vestiges of joy were in the film.

Cody: Oh yeah, I think we were second or third row when we went and saw King Kong. Which is the best way to see that one. Gotta be able to look up at Kong, not straight at him.

When Chappie started, I gotta admit, I wasn’t sure I could make it through it. We were so damn close to the screen, and there was a lot of shakycam in those first few scenes, and it was making me nauseous. But after about ten minutes I was absolutely in the story, and felt fine. This movie grabbed a hold of me hard.

John: Yeah, it really says something for the movie that seats that have the potential to be the worst in the theater didn’t cramp our style at all. Once those aerial views of Johannesburg and talking heads started, I was grinning.

What’d you think of the opening by the way? It felt like they were very conscious to evoke D9 in the very beginning—a route they didn’t stick with. The first few minutes kinda jar when viewed retrospectively.

Cody: I kinda love Blomkamp’s first acts. He has like the most literal first acts I’ve ever seen. It’s literally just documentary-ish footage of people explaining everything you need to know, which is pretty brilliant. It’s almost as if he handed in a screenplay to a screenwriting teacher, and the teacher said the first act was weak, and he got pissed and went home and wrote the most spelled-out first act he possibly could, and then realized, ‘shit, this is pretty cool’. I guess it worked not as well here as it did in District 9, but I didn’t mind it. I think it helped set the city up. It led into the first action scene pretty well.

John: The city was so beautifully drawn. He really has an eye for that stuff. The heat just radiates off the street.

Cody: That first action scene, it felt like they could have almost gone a very deliberately Robocop route, but then they didn’t, and I was really impressed by that. It really piqued my interest as to how we were gonna get out of the first act of the film.

John: Well, here’s the thing with that. Between this, Dredd, and the Robocop from last year, we’ve had 3 Robocop remakes in as many years. This one was very self conscious about it—they pitted a clear Robocop against a clear ED-209, but reversed the roles in a few ways. One, ED-209 has the human-augmented mind, and two, more importantly, the pure robot is the good guy—innocent and just. The robot with the human mind is the bad guy. The human side is a pure corruptor—exactly the opposite from in Robocop.

Cody: Yeah, that’s a great point. It also reminded me a lot of two things I love: the show John From Cincinnati and the movie Chocolate. Once the plot points started to get similar to those, it had me absolutely hooked. I felt like I was witnessing something important and special.

John: I don’t know about important, but definitely special. The audience was way into it—lots of clapping and cheering at the end.

Cody: And a lot of clap breaks throughout. The reason I say ‘important’ is because for me it’s the best film based off Kurzweil’s futurist theories yet. There have been others in recent years, but they just didn’t employ them well, like that movie Transcendence, and a couple others I’m forgetting.

It’s like, after the documentary Transcendent Man came out, it feels like a lot of screenwriters just watched that and then scribbled down ideas for sci-fi films based off stuff that was being said in it. And so far, Blomkamp’s scribbles have turned into the best one.

How’d you feel about Die Antwoord?

John: I didn’t know anything about them going into it. I thought they were both really good—they had a quirky energy and nailed the emotional parts when they happened. I understand they were hard to work with, but I think it was worth it. The voices and tattoos added a lot of production value

Cody: I thought they were fantastic. And before this film, I couldn’t stand them. I hate their music and their look and vibe. But here it really works. I was into all the songs of theirs used in the film, because they worked with the context and feel of the film. And they have pretty good acting chops, to boot. It kinda reminded me of how I can’t stand Harmony Korine’s films, but I love Spring Breakers—I can’t stand Die Antwoord, but I love them in this.

John: The music really worked—it was more of that local flavor that the whole production felt steeped in. Like D9, it felt like it wouldn’t have worked as well elsewhere—there was so much mixing of African identity and American incursion in there. The costume and production design alone felt like they were telling a story.

Cody: Hugh Jackman’s costuming in this was fucking amazing. His whole characterization was just perfect, in an almost Billy Mitchell (King of Kong) type of way.

John: Yeah, he had this bush pilot thing going on that was a lot of fun. I wish there was more of him in it.

Cody: Everyone was great—Sharlto Copley especially just absolutely nailed the vocalization and body language for Chappie. I can’t even wrap my head around how hard that must’ve been.

John: Yeah, he was like Scarlett Johansson in Her. He nailed so many shades of wonder. They committed fully to the idea of new AI as a baby, which is its other big twist on the Robocop/Iron Giant/Short Circuit genre. It was a good call—there’s a really interesting flow to the early stuff, him learning and cowering in fear a lot. The way he moved was so fascinating to watch. Halting and unsure. Really lovely stuff. It’s a strong performance and they’re smart about visually distinguishing him from the other robots, from customization to the stenciling and bling he gets at the end. The bling was a little much I think, I kept wanting him to take it off. But at least it was something new.

Cody: I liked that the bling clearly meant something to him. He was proud of it. It didn’t felt like tacked-on thuggishness, like those two transformers everyone hated in Transformers 2. As far as his design, I thought he looked great. And I love the curved metal bar where his mouth would be that looks sort of like a smile.

John: It’s funny, his whole profile is kind of like the prawns from D9.

Cody: Yeah, and I love that. This film really felt like a return to home for Blomkamp, like he went off and did Elysium and then was like fuck this shit, I need to get back to South Africa and the shit I was doing that was awesome. And I really think this is a stronger movie than District 9. It’s more well-rounded, and it definitely feels like he’s progressed as a filmmaker.

John: And yet it’s taking a beating critically.

Cody: When I got home it was at like 14%. Then a bit later it was at 40%. [Ed. Note: It currently sits at 28%] I hope it climbs, but christ, the people that are giving bad reviews are really eviscerating it. And I can’t even wrap my head around someone not liking this movie. This is the best movie I’ve seen in theaters in ages.

John: Well what do you think it is about it?

Cody: Bad memories of Short Circuit 2 maybe? I think robots acting gangsta just seems like a very lame concept off the bat. But there’s so much heart here that I don’t understand how someone could roll their eyes and write it off as stupid. The film is almost all heart. Way more of its time is spent as a damn near kitchen sink drama than as an hip-hoppin action movie.

John: It reminded me of Real Steel, the other Jackman robot one. I feel like if I were a kid, this would’ve blown me away. It’s a really sweet, humane movie. At first it feels like the whole thing will be about how we lack the moral fiber to create life, but it softens as it goes. Lots of redemption on display.

Cody: Oh yeah, this woulda rocked me as a kid. It rocked me now, but man I woulda needed a Chappie action figure like, right away.

Already, people I’ve been chatting with are giving me shit for saying this is good, by the way. They’re talking to me like I’m lying to them, or crazy. And they haven’t even fucking seen it.

John: So what is it? I really didn’t see any promo stuff so I don’t know what turned people off. It feels like this happens a lot, especially to sci-fi stuff. Every year there’s another instance.

Cody: Well, I remember you got shit for saying the Robocop remake wasn’t bad. It wasn’t even like you said it was great—all you did was say it wasn’t bad, and people were acting like you had flipped your lid.

And there was a lot of resistance to Punisher: War Zone and Dredd initially, and both those are just fantastic. People have come around to those somewhat though, it seems.

John: Yeah, as far as Robocop remakes go, this isn’t the masterpiece Dredd was, but it’s better than the official remake, which had nice ideas it didn’t quite pull off.

Cody: I liked Chappie more than Dredd, although Dredd is great. I’d probably give it a 4 1/2 out of 5. What would you rate it?

John: Probably a 4. I didn’t realize until well afterwards that it was rated R, and I think that was the central misstep from which any other missteps sprang. I would’ve liked a tighter rein on the flow of the plot, and some definition to the villains, who sort of waver between kid’s movie incompetency and gritty ruthlessness. But overall, it was a really fun and brisk sci-fi actioner. I’m a sucker for robot movies (robots and dogs—make robot old yeller and I’ll be down for the count) and Chappie, when it fires on all cylinders, really gets your heartstrings.

What’d you think of the pacing? It had some pretty major tonal shifts.

Cody: I think that’s what I liked most of all. It hit all the right beats along the way, but at the same time it kept me guessing. I had no idea where it was gonna go for a lot of it. It’s like every time it seemed it would zig, it’d zag. And by the climax, Blomkamp had totally written himself into a corner, which I always love. I like when storytellers don’t give themselves any rope, and have to really get almost MacGuyer-esque in their storytelling in order to get their characters out of the doomed situation they’re in.

John: Which zig/zag are you talking about? Near the end, some of the tonal shifts were a bit too abrupt for me.

Cody: Well, without spoiling anything—because I think this is really one of those movies you should go into without knowing too much—I wasn’t really sure what the hell the story of the film was even gonna be for like the first chunk of the movie, but I was engaged. And then later on, I had ideas about how the film would resolve, but those ideas were all wrong. And I’m sure all my ideas of how things were gonna go had occurred to Blomkamp during the writing process, but instead he was like nah, I’m gonna zag in this direction.

Personally, I was fine with the tonal shifts in the third act, but I think that’s because it all just resonated strongly with me emotionally. Like, they all made sense because of that.

John: I just wish it stuck with the climax a little longer. basically, at the end there, a couple characters who were fighting each other sorta join forces, and five or ten more minutes readjusting to those stakes would’ve gone a long way. Even just 30 seconds where they switch gears. I guess that’s a good thing, though, when your major complaint with a movie is that you want it longer.

Cody: Amen to that.

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