Release Date(s)2015 (February 23, 2016)
Studio(s)MRC/Kinberg Genre/Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: This is our third Ultra HD Blu-ray review here at The Bits. As UHD BD is a brand new format, much is still to be settled in terms of establishing a proper display calibration baseline for evaluating 4K UHD content. So what follows will be our best attempt to offer specific impressions on the format’s A/V quality improvements given those constraints. Note that the display used for this review is Samsung’s UN65JS9500, which is compliant with the full HDR10/Rec.2020 “Ultra HD Premium” specification, driven by Samsung’s UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.]
As someone who greatly appreciates science fiction filmmaking, especially near-future science fiction, I really wanted to like Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to do so. Its depiction of the dawn of strong AI (or Artificial Intelligence) in less than ideal circumstances is certainly high-concept. But it would be charitable to say that its story and characters are a bit of a mess.
Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, a hotshot young computer engineer for the South African defense contractor Tetravaal, which has just launched a successful program to crack down on crime in Johannesburg by replacing human police officers with robot soldiers. Impacted by this crackdown are gangsters Ninja and Yolandi Visser (real-life rappers turned actors playing versions of themselves), who decide that the only way forward is to kidnap Deon and steal his “remote control” for the robots. Little do they know, Deon’s been working on a side project to create a true AI that can think for itself. He’s finally cracked it, but the refusal of his boss (Sigourney Weaver) to allow him to test it at work leads Deon to steal a beat-up robot body to do it himself. Intercepted on his way home, Deon is forced to activate the robot, now called Chappie (powered by his child-like AI), and teach it to serve the gangsters. The rest of the film plays out with Deon, Ninja, and Yolandi essentially vying for control of Chappie’s soul. Complicating matters is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a rival engineer at Tetravaal, who’s trying to undermine Deon’s robot program so his own mechanical creation can take over.
If all of that sounds like an interesting story, here’s the thing: It should be. Blomkamp is clearly fascinated by the impact that fast-developing future technology will have on his home country of South Africa and, having been there, I get it. It’s a endlessly fascinating place, where widely divergent cultures and economic classes mix in an uneasy mélange. It feels like the very nerves of the place are raw and exposed. But the effective result is that he’s essentially made the same film three times now, beginning with the far better District 9 and the equally-flawed Elysium. I would never fault Blomkamp for this fascination – it’s part of what makes his cinematic perspective unique. The problem here is that nearly every other aspect of his storytelling feels derivative and hurriedly-written. Rather than exploring its ideas with more depth, Chappie’s plot turns to the familiar, essentially becoming a District 9/RoboCop mash-up. This is a script that runs with its first ideas rather than digging a little deeper for the kind of originality that would better match its setting. That’s a real shame.
While Chappie at least aspires to be high concept, it’s populated with the most two-dimensional and unlikable collection of characters I’ve ever seen on screen outside of a bad comic book film. Patel’s Deon is a nerd cliché and wildly irresponsible, the gangsters are so reckless and simple-minded it’s hard to believe they’ve made it this far in their lives, and Weaver and Jackman are completely wasted. These veteran actors have almost no opportunity to explore what depth their stock characters potentially have which, based on their dialogue, isn’t much. Ultimately, the story goes exactly where you think it will, devolving into a hail of explosions and bullets. Sharlto Copley’s vocal and MoCap performance as Chappie is really the only bright spot in an otherwise maddening viewing experience.
Sony’s Chappie Ultra HD Blu-ray release presents the film in 4K (2160p) at the correct 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It was shot by DP Trent Opaloch primarily in Red Raw format (at native 4K resolution) using Red Epic cameras. Post production and visual effects were done in 4K and the film was released theatrically via 4K Digital Intermediate. Sony’s UHD presentation was produced directly from this 4K DI, with HDR color timing done in the 4K space.
The result is impressive resolution, a true 4K experience, with highly-refined image detail that’s completely lacking in the 2K upconversion “noise” we’ve seen on other early UHD releases – just a subtle touch of applied grain texture. You see the refinement in little things like skin texture and fabric, piles of trash, circuit boards, and the wear patterns of old graffiti and paint on cement walls. It’s pleasing as hell when viewed on a 65” panel, and I can only imagine how good it must look in a larger front projection presentation. I’m looking forward to trying it that way later this year.
Even more impressive than the resolution improvement, however, is the breadth and depth of color in this image. It’s nothing short of spectacular. You see it in a hundred little ways – the range of metallic orange-golds of Ninja’s sunglasses, the yellow paint on his assault rifle, the bold colors of the South African flag, the subtleties of different skin tones, the pale neon artwork on the walls of Ninja and Yolandi’s abandoned factory lair seen in different lighting conditions. There’s an extraordinary shot of Yolandi (at about 54:00) in which her white-blond coiffure is both top and backlit, and the different shadings of color you can see her hair are striking. There’s also a jaw-dropping shot of the Joberg skyline at sunset (at 52:04) with the sky going from blue to green to orange to yellow (left to right across the frame) even as the gray clouds are bottom-lit with yellow and orange sunlight. Down below, the landscape is more darkly lit, but still exhibits extraordinary detail and vivid tones of green grass. It’s just gorgeous. This is the best looking “natural” (or at least largely non-stylized) UHD image I’ve seen thus far.
Chappie is sonically impressive on UHD too, thanks to a new English Dolby Atmos mix (core 7.1 Dolby TrueHD). The mix is nearly identical to the impressive 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix on the previous Blu-ray, with the exception that Atmos adds rather subtle audio cues from the “height” channels. The mix is otherwise fairly aggressive, with good all-around imaging and immersion, excellent atmospheric cues, a broad front soundstage, and satisfying bass. Hans Zimmer’s score and Die Antwoord’s occasional rap-rave music cues sound full and are well represented in the mix. I wouldn’t say this is reference quality audio as far as Dolby Atmos or Dolby TrueHD goes, but it’s still very good. Note that the disc also offers English Descriptive Audio, French 5.1 DTS-HD MA, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Sony’s UHD menu interface is a little weird. I give them credit for trying something different, but it actually takes longer to access the usual disc features and options via the new interface than the typical BD variety. Essentially, each option is on its own page. From the main menu screen, you can press “Play” to start the movie, you navigate down for the “Languages” (aka audio/subtitle options) and right to enter “Moments” (it’s Bookmarks or something – 4 selections of highlights from the film: Chappie, Deon, Ninja & Action. I don’t really see the point of it). Go down from Languages and you get to “Scenes” (aka scene selections). Go down from Scenes and you get to “Cast & Crew” which is nothing more than a picture gallery of the film’s cast & crew with their names listed. Like I said, I give Sony credit for trying, but they’ve reinvented the wheel only to come up with a clunkier wheel. I think they should just go back to the regular BD type interface that actually works better.
There are no extras on the UHD disc, but the package comes with a regular Blu-ray and a Digital Copy code. On the Blu-ray, you’ll find an Alternate Ending (5:16) which I won’t spoil but is more high concept, an Extended Scene (Very Bad Man – 1:30), 9 featurettes including From Tetra Vaal to Chappie (7:30), Jozi: Real City and a Sci-Fi Setting (15:03), Chappie: The Streetwise Professor (9:31), We Are Tetravaal (5:53), Keep It Gangster (7:07), Rogue Robot: Deconstructing the Stunts and Special Effects (14:21), Arms Race: The Weapons and Robots (6:25), Bringing Chappie to Life: The Visual Effects (8:01), and The Reality of Robotics (5:34), The Art of Chappie Gallery (includes Chappie, Moose, Yobot, Production Design, Storyboards, Director’s Sketches, and Poster Art), and finally previews (including a Digital Copy promo and trailers for Powers, Fury, Aloha, Air, and Predestination).
[Editor’s Note: Given that nearly all 4K releases are multi-disc sets, with the extras often included on separate BD discs, our extras grades for these 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray reviews will reflect the bonus content across all discs in the set.]
Though unique in its initial concept and setting, Chappie becomes all too predictable and pedestrian as you watch. It’s also depressing as hell from start to finish. I certainly hope that if Blomkamp sticks with the sci-fi genre he pushes himself a little harder, and maybe teams up with a better scriptwriter. (Rumors are he’s at work on a direct sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens – I’m not sure how I feel about that after seeing Chappie, but I’m not reassured.) In any case, let’s just hope that when the real-world advent of strong AI finally occurs, it goes down nothing like this. Otherwise, God help us.
- Bill Hunt