Movie: Chappie (2015)
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Composer: Hans Zimmer
You’re probably asking yourself, “Why the fuck is he going to talk about Chappie?” Well, my friend, as I’ve said before, I like to talk about good soundtracks and some of them are unfortunately bound to mediocre movies. Personally, I loved Chappie but I can understand why a lot of people didn’t enjoy it. In my honest opinion, the movie has some flaws but it buries them in its strengths.
First of all, I went into this movie expecting a story somewhere between District 9 and Elysium (Neill Blomkamp’s other films) and I can honestly say that I was happily surprised. The screenplay itself isn’t what you’d call a masterpiece, but it’s still pretty solid. For those of you that haven’t seen the movie, here’s a quick elevator pitch that I stole directly from the movie’s IMDb page, “In the near future, crime is patrolled by a mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.” Now, the story might seem dull at first, but they actually pulled it off quite well. Furthermore, the concept of artificial intelligence has already been exploited many times in cinema but very few filmmakers have been able to make it genuinely interesting. Not only did Blomkamp make the concept engaging, he did it by creating a compelling character that was at the heart of the story and not just a robot that wants to erase the human race.
Now, concerning character: Chappie is what makes the movie so great. His emotional and physical development is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. I mean for fuck’s sake, Sharlto Copley had to play a robot that went from being a newborn physically advanced baby to an adolescent hot-head super robot. FYI, he played it impeccably but I’ll dwell on that shortly. The movie’s supporting characters aren’t what you’d call la crème de la crème, but they still deliver something fresh from the usual character developments and archetypes we see in big blockbuster movies. A lot of people complained about Die Antwoord’s role but I think their characters were interesting even though they were really fucking weird. As for the movie’s main villain, Hugh Jackman is a great actor but there’s some turds you can’t polish (I’m talking about the character, not Jackman). Other than that, the movie stands its ground very well; the production design looks amazing and respects the setting very well, the cinematography did its job adequately with some visual treats here and there, and the special effects were superb.
Speaking of which, let’s finally talk about Sharlto Copley’s execution of Chappie and the CGI that brought his performance to life. First of all, I have to give a huge props to the special effects team – they made some spectacular effects with one simple nuance: they respected the movie’s visual aesthetic and that’s why Chappie looks so good. They pushed themselves to make the robots look genuine and realistic, and for that, I tip my hat to them. However, Chappie couldn’t have come to life without Copley’s amazing performance. Just to give you an idea, even Chris Harvey, the movie’s visual effects supervisor, has admitted the following, “There’s no way Chappie would have been successful without Sharlto. What he brought to the project was absolutely amazing – you couldn’t put a value on how important that was. His performance was referenced 1:1 – we were always referencing back to his timing.” That, my friend, says a lot about Sharlto’s performance and his dedication towards the character’s development throughout the movie. If you ask me, Andy Serkis (the guy who played Gollum/Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings) remains the king of playing computer generated characters but I believe mister Copley has proven himself to be more than capable. *Incoming segue* Still, there’s one thing I enjoyed more than anything else in this movie – I’m (obviously) talking about Hans Zimmer’s score.
Chiefly, I have to thank mister Blomkamp for being a person that respects the importance of music in movies. Not only does he give it importance, he gives it space and not a ton of directors actually do so. Don’t get me wrong, music doesn’t always have a place in movies but Blomkamp is a director that knows his composer’s talents and he uses them at his advantage. Hans Zimmer is a composer that can make a mediocre movie turn into a great one and this is one of those times. As I mentioned earlier, I love Chappie but Zimmer’s score holds a big part in that statement. The first thing I noticed in the movie’s soundtrack is its boldness to represent the movie’s story and not its genre. Zimmer did the same thing with Interstellar but he didn’t do it knowingly. I was surprised when I saw the first shots of Chappie because I didn’t hear any stereotypical African chant being used to explain to us that the movie takes place in Johannesburg. Rather than doing so, Zimmer decided to compose a full electronic score (fuck yeah). However, here’s the catch: the score was written in a very traditional way. Thus, certain sounds represent certain instruments. That way, Zimmer was able to immerse us even more in the alternate future that Blomkamp was trying to invite us in. This is the first way composers attract us into a fictional world: they create a soundscape for the world itself. In this case, using an electronic soundtrack makes the world more believable. Now that you have the audience in your world, how do you make them care about your main character that happens to be an adolescent hot-headed robot? It’s simple really, you develop a theme.
Using themes to accompany characters is very common but very few composers do it effectively. Themes that have worked in certain movies are usually the ones we remember the most. I’m talking about the evil Imperial March in Star Wars, the grandiose and epic Fellowship Theme in The Lord of the Rings, the classy jazzy feel of James Bond’s guitar notes and even the shark’s dark piano notes in Jaws. Now how can these themes actually add something to the story (the character)? Well, by putting these themes in different lights, we can understand a character’s reaction towards certain situations. For example, Chappie’s theme first appears in the song A Machine That Thinks And Feels at the 30 second mark. What’s so interesting about this theme is its use under different spotlights. Zimmer composed a theme that could be used as a lullaby but also for an ear-bashing action sequence. You can notice this by listening to the song Breaking The Code and skipping to the first third. In this case, the music not only assists and dramatizes the scene, it adds a bit of storytelling to it. You can understand what Chappie is going through emotionally by simply listening to the music. We don’t generally notice this because it’s done a lot on a subconscious level but it’s incredibly effective to control the spectator’s feelings. That’s why I love this soundtrack so much – Zimmer was able to create something conventional without it being conventional (if that makes any sense). Other than that, the music itself is fucking great – it’s definitely worth the listen.
Look, I know Chappie isn’t the best movie ever and some people have a hard time checking it out, but it’s worth the watch. Blomkamp’s technical attention, Sharlto Copley’s performance, and Hans Zimmer’s score make it a must see in my book.
Interesting trivia: To help the actors perform with Sharlto Copley (Chappie), the visual effects team had designed a grey suit that had some movement limitations as well as joints that would make Copley bigger. This eventually made it easier for the special effects team to make the interactions between Chappie and the human characters seem a lot more realistic. Side note: The team that did the special effects for this movie is the same team that did The Lord of the Rings – they’re called Weta Digital and they’re pretty fucking amazing at their job.
Song: A Machine That Thinks And Feels
Song: Breaking The Code
Song: We Own This Sky
Thanks for reading (and listening). See you next time!