Neill Blomkamp burst onto the movie scene in 2009 with District 9, a sci-fi film backed by Peter Jackson that tackled societal issues in South Africa through the prism of alien living in Johannesburg slums that had essentially crash-landed on earth and were segregated from humans. He followed it up with Elysium in 2013. Elysium also used the sci-fi premise to tackle social issues, mainly of class struggle, but with mixed results. Unfortunately, Chappie does not offer much new to say from Blomkamp, in fact, it is just more of the same, with diminished returns.
Chappie is set in the near future, in a South Africa where droid robots have taken over the policing of the city, drastically lowering the crime rate. The droids are provided to the police department through a private weapons manufacturer, Tetravaal. Engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the toast of Tetravaal as the innovator of these independent robots, while fellow engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) languishes on the sidelines trying to get his human-controlled robot program, MOOSE, up and running while being told to make budget cuts by his supervisor Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Michelle is also holding Deon back, as Deon is working on creating the world’s first artificial intelligence and wants to install it in one of his droids, an idea Michelle flatly rejects. Ignoring her orders, Deon steals a damaged robot with the intent of installing the A.I. on it from his home. Unbeknownst to him, a group of gangsters has been scoping him out with the intent of kidnapping him and having him program a robot droid for them to help them rob banks because they owe money to a crime boss who will kill them in a few days without payment. The gangsters, Ninja and Yolandi (conveniently, the actual names of the duo who comprise the South African “zef rap-rave” duo, Die Antwoord) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) threaten to kill Deon unless he helps them and gives them a robot that will help them. Deon installs the A.I. on the robot and they give him the name Chappie (voiced by frequent Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley).
What follows from there is a “struggle for the soul” of Chappie, between Deon, his creator, Yolandi, his mother, and Ninja, his father, on how to raise and teach Chappie, who starts off as a scared infant and grows and learns at an exponential rate. Deon and Yolandi seek to nurture him, while Ninja seeks to exploit him given the time crunch they are under, both from the crime boss and Chappie’s damaged battery giving him only days to live. Vincent’s presence and suspicion of Deon eventually further complicate things as he thinks A.I. is an unnatural abomination. The plot gets more and more convoluted under devolving into a big mass of gunfire and explosions.
Visually, the film is something to behold. Special effects have never been an issue with Blomkamp’s films. Like District 9 and Elysium, Chappie looks greats, and the CGI blends in perfectly with the live action. There is a lot of intricate detail and craftsmanship on display here, both in how Chappie is rendered and how he interacts with the surrounding environment.
Sadly, the visual aspect is about the only thing the film has going for it. Ninja and Yolandi are not professional actors. Employing non-professional actors in film is not necessarily a drawback, but in this case it shows. And their “zef” lifestyle, basically a ghetto fabulous version of lower middle class white people, quickly wears out its welcome and becomes grating, only to reach a new level of annoying when they begin to teach Chappie to walk, talk, and act like them. If these two were the only problem, the film could be forgiven, but sadly Patel and Jackman are playing caricatures instead of characters. Jose Pablo Cantillo is about the only one who gives a worthwhile performance, doing a good job of portraying a sense of awe at what Chappie is while also knowing what they intend to use him for and shows at least some complexity of emotion that Ninja and Yolandi are just incapable of showing.
The social commentary here about the police and how they interact with the civilian population is somewhat shallow and poorly thought through, rarely raising compelling points. It’s either laziness on the part of Blomkamp or it gets pushed aside in favor of his obsession with Ninja and Yolandi and what their culture represents. This is the great disappointment with Blomkamp; as he has gone from District 9 to Elysium and now to Chappie, his social commentary, whatever it was, has stagnated and digressed. It’s also increasingly irresponsible. No matter how criminal and devoid of morality the drug lords and bank robbers and other criminals that inhabit his worlds are, it is ultimately excused or ignored because of how corrupt or evil or villainous the people in power and authority are. It may not be outright justification, but it is at least benign deference and sympathy for their “plight.”
There are also plot points regarding A.I. and the transferral of consciousness that are borderline absurd. A key plot point involves Chappie trying to transfer his consciousness to a new body because his battery is damaged and will only last for five days. A neuro-headset at Tertravaal magically holds the answer to his problem, even though as a robot, with a metal head full of wires, he does not have a human skull and brain for which the headset is designed. And the naiveté of Chappie, who is able to learn at a rapid pace, becomes less and less believable as he progresses and learns, because he still somehow believes that shooting someone will result in them going to sleep, because that is what Ninja told him. Never mind that if he can make a neuro-headset designed for humans upload his own consciousness to the internet he could take the small amount of time it would take for him to learn about death, murder, and similar topics.
Blomkamp has not built upon the promise that he displayed with District 9 and has begun to look like a director who is saying the exact same thing with each of his films, with only slight variation and less coherence with each release. A review I saw before I saw Chappie compared him with M. Night Shyamalan, another director who started out with a great directing debut and then attempted to do the same thing with each successive film with less and less success each time. The comparison is not unwarranted. Blomkamp is a great visual director, but he has not shown an ability to expand his storytelling scope and broaden his perspective or show that he has anything new to say with his films. He has been attached to a new Alien sequel, something that excited a lot of people, myself included, before seeing Chappie. In light of Chappie and the course his directing trajectory has been on, that news now concerns me.
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5 stars