Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo
Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with his directorial debut District 9, a gritty sci-fi film set in his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa. At the time, he proved himself as a fresh new voice in Hollywood and a special effects guru capable of showing up the big studio blockbusters with a fraction of the budget. Now, five years later, his career is already in danger of stagnating. How did it come to this?
Blomkamp’s second film Elysium lost a lot of the goodwill that he had built up with District 9, mostly because the story just didn’t hold water. Working with a much bigger budget and an A-list star, Blomkamp focused all of his attention on spectacle and forgot to put any substance behind the action. Now he has returned to his roots with a more modest budget and another story inspired by one of his short films. Unfortunately, in the end, Chappie is an even bigger misfire for Blomkamp, one that is so inherently flawed that it simply cannot recover.
The story once again takes place in South Africa, imagining a near future where robots are enlisted to help reduce the crime rate. When one of the engineers decides to perform some rogue modifications on a damaged robot, he gives birth to a self-aware machine with the ability to learn like a human. His experiment goes awry when a group of desperate local gangsters stumble upon the robot and opt to use him for their own purposes, training him instead to become “Robot Gangster Number One.”
The movie opens with talking head interviews and news reports similar to District 9, establishing the situation and immediately lending credibility to this futuristic scenario. For a while, there appears to be plenty of potential in the premise, despite its obvious similarities to both Robocop and Short Circuit. After some initial hints at satire and social commentary, however, the movie quite literally runs out of juice, leading to a cliched and confusing conclusion that ultimately goes nowhere.
Chappie is definitely more of a comedy than Blomkamp’s previous films, which is one of the things that arguably saves it from a complete systems failure. Much of the comedy comes from the fun of seeing a childlike A.I. interact with hardened criminals and while this is somewhat obvious it does lead to some surreal and memorable moments, including a montage of a blinged out robot carjacking people at gunpoint. At times it feels like an R-rated Short Circuit (or, more appropriately, Short Circuit 2), but the gangsters themselves also have a childlike nature that is endearing. South African rappers Die Antwoord prove to be unique and interesting characters on screen even if their acting chops aren’t quite there.
The movie is also accompanied by a propulsive electronic score and soundtrack that predictably includes plenty of songs by Die Antwoord. While the music definitely gives the movie a unique flavour, it also by the end feels a little too much like a shameless advertisement for the band. The score was composed by Hans Zimmer, which is ironic considering that the score for Elysium sounded a lot more in line with Zimmer’s previous work than this does.
Chappie himself is at least an impressive achievement on a technical and emotional level. I was surprised by how quickly you are able to care for him, although I think this is partially an indication of just how easy it is for humans to empathize with a creature that is completely innocent. The movie does cheat a bit by having Chappie talk like a child (he is voiced by Blomkamp’s frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley), and also by having him suffer some unfair physical abuse, but the early stages of Chappie learning the world around him are delightful and also give an appreciation for the complexity of real human learning. The film makes the idea of a sentient machine seem within reach, even though they simplify things a great deal.
After getting the audience behind Chappie, however, the movie proceeds to simply throw away all of that emotional investment. Much like Elysium, this movie rolls out a last minute deus ex machina that just automatically fixes all of their problems, and while that could have led to a whole new set of issues, they are not explored in any way whatsoever. Hugh Jackman’s mulleted one-note villain provides the requisite giant robot battle at the end, but it also leads to a somewhat problematic moral quandary that leaves Chappie seeming not so heroic. It’s possible that this was meant to be intentionally disturbing, but it’s not clear enough to have any real impact. The fate of Ninja and Yolandi is also somewhat questionable in my mind.
It’s a shame but it would appear that Neill Blomkamp is simply unable to deliver on the third act of his films. His talent for making short films is clear, but his ability to flesh out these ideas out into a feature-length stories is less proven. Perhaps Peter Jackson made the difference as a producer on District 9 or perhaps Blomkamp just didn’t give his latest scripts the time they needed to develop. Either way, there aren’t a lot of directors making edgy and thoughtful science-fiction these days, so let’s hope he can recalibrate and learn from his mistakes before he tackles a beloved franchise like the Alien series. — Sean