Chappie seems vaguely familiar. It could be because writer-director Neill Blomkamp transports us back to Johannesburg, South Africa, the setting of his first feature, District 9. That film was a big surprise when it was released in late summer 2009. Four years later, Blomkamp’s Elysium, another science-fiction feature, carried a big star (Matt Damon) and bigger budget, but was a disappointing follow-up.
Back in February 2015, Blomkamp stated in an interview that he felt like he “f***ed it up,” when talking about Elysium.
“I love it so much, I almost want to go back and do it correctly. But I just think the script wasn’t… I just didn’t make a good enough film is ultimately what it is.”
He’s not wrong about the script being bad, as Blomkamp’s greatest strengths reside in the director’s chair, not in the writing room.
Chappie, sadly, continues a down trend for a filmmaker who showed so much promise after a debut that blindsided audiences and critics alike. Blomkamp’s original voice in science fiction seems to have been muted as he seems content with taking tropes that have worked in the past and trying to make something original.
The year is 2016 and crime is out of control in South Africa. The solution: robot cops. The Johannesburg police department unveil the new program, which places armed robot droids (known as Scouts) on the front lines to help the human police force gain a measure of control, specifically in slums and shanty towns where murder is rampant.
The creator of the Scout program, engineer Devon Wilson (Dev Patel), is the golden boy for Tetra Vaal, the weapons manufacturer. This is much to the chagrin of Vincent Moore (a mullet-sporting Hugh Jackman), a former soldier now fellow robot developer at the same manufacturing plant in South Africa. Business is booming and CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is happy with the current product. But when Wilson comes forward with an artificial intelligence breakthrough, she rebuffs his idea when he asks to try it on a damaged police bot.
Wilson goes through with the experiment anyway, as if he was Geppetto giving life to the robot boy Chappie. But Chappie has the misfortune of coming into the possession of bungling gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who want to use it in a major armed robbery heist to pay back the money they owe to crime boss Hippo (Brandon Auret).
Caught in a quandary of conflicting moral codes from both Devon’s penchant for non-violence and Ninja’s hoodlum mentality, Chappie is also in a race against time as his damaged chassis finds his battery energy low.
Chappie is Neill Blomkamp’s third iteration of making the same film. Slight variations are found, but there are too many similarities to not notice. We get the big metaphor. First it was an allegory about apartheid. Then it was about the haves and have-nots. Now it is about man and machine. Each feature deals with marginalized fringes of society while making gesticulations about the ruling majority.
It’s getting to a point where we have to wonder if Blomkamp only has a single trick in his film-making arsenal, not unlike M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) and his “twists.” His films build to a point where they are reliant on an action element to make it enticing for viewers. District 9 was so bold and amazing in its delineation of South Africa’s apartheid with humans and aliens instead of blacks and whites. It also helped that its central conceit was of a single character’s experiences of what it was like to be human and alien.
Blomkamp’s Chappie is saddled with underwritten, and sometimes extraneous, one-note characters that don’t do much. Hugh Jackman hams it up with his Aussie accent and flowing mullet. He is essentially RoboCop’s Ronny Cox but with a beefier physique. Dev Patel has little personality beyond his role of creator. As for Sigourney Weaver, her appearance might as well be an unbilled cameo.
Ninja and Yolandi of the music group Die Antwoord are an interesting bit of casting, as their counterculture image is reflective of their characters. However, this will probably go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with their careers as a rap-rave group.
“You have to be futuristic and carry on. You gotta be a good guide to help people get away from dull experience,” said Ninja of Die Antwoord’s hyperreality nature.
Then there’s Chappie. Sharlto Copley, a frequent collaborator of Neill Blomkamp, provides the voice and mo-cap work, bringing life to a character that is more lively than its human counterparts. E.T. by way of Johnny Five in Short Circuit, Chappie talks like a South African hood, wears more chains than Mr. T, and is a subject to neglect and abuse by its “parents,” Ninja and Yolandi.
Chappie has so many story angles that it becomes obtuse to what Blomkamp wants to achieve. It’s frustrating, really, because it succeeds on a technical level. Copley’s performance capture work is up there with what Andy Serkis has achieved with The Lord of the Rings (as Gollum) and Rise of the Planet of Apes (as Caesar).
Science fiction provides a good vehicle to offer commentary on a myriad of subjects, but this feature wanted to tell four or five different stories at once. Moving up, down, and around like a pinball being guided by flippers, the narrative fails to go beneath the surface in dealing with the philosophical concept of putting a human consciousness in a robot body.
So is Chappie about an engineer who’s tired of making weapons altogether so he plays god with his Pinocchio-bot creation? And if that’s the case, why make a fully sentient robot with a short life expectancy? Is it out of fear or something else?
Building to an action-heavy climax, which follows his previous efforts, Blomkamp’s fondness of the macabre finds him incorporating hyperviolence just because. Its usage is unwarranted and only takes away from the allegorical themes, which are underdeveloped anyway.
There’s a great film hidden in Chappie. Too bad Neill Blomkamp’s nearsightedness distorts his vision of artificial intelligence.
[Image via Sony Pictures Entertainment]