(dir. Neil Blomkamp)
“You know what's in here? Bunch of wires, mate!”
I was rooting for Neil Blomkamp. When it came to his disappointingly uneven Elysium (2013), I let him ride on the waves of Best Picture nominee District 9 (2009). Even as discussion of his career shifted towards the negative (sometimes exaggeratedly so), I kept hope that Chappie, based on his short-film Tetra Vaal could deliver. I wish I could tell you Chappie was a good movie, an OK movie even, but it doesn’t even come close. The central set-up is interesting: In Johannesburg, South Africa, crime has been brought to an all-time low by a robotic police force, developed by engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). But Deon desires something more, to create a robot that can think for itself and learn like a human does. When Deon, along with a damaged police robot, are kidnapped by criminals Ninja and Yolandi (South African rap duo Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi) he has the opportunity to create a thinking robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copely). In the classic struggle of nature versus nurture, Chappie is then torn between being the thoughtful being his master created him to be and the criminal his “parents” want him to be.
Chappie is plagued by a major case of identity crisis. It’s sometimes a quirky satire, sometimes an over-the-top action movie in the vein of Paul Verhoeven, and sometimes it’s an existential sci-fi film. Let me assure you that as interesting as the components sound separately, they never meld together to create anything worthwhile. The film, which is in a seemingly constant search for a target age group, is a mess of ideas, concepts, and questions that the film doesn’t really invest in answering. While Blomkamp plays with great, high-concept ideas, these ideas are treated as casual afterthoughts. The third act of the film deals with a life-altering, world-changing concept that would take an entire movie to explore and develop, and instead it’s treated as a shrug. Plot twists happen because pacing has made them necessary, not because they make any sense in context of the story that’s been developing.
Throughout the film we’re told repeatedly that Chappie is “just a kid” and that he has to learn the same way humans do. The idea makes sense, but instead of taking time to explore this factor, Chappie becomes more capable than a human being in the period of three days because the plot needs him to be. Eschewing the use of montages, or skipping ahead a number of years, Blomkamp and screenwriting partner/wife, Terri Tatchell decide the easier thing to do is simply break the rules of the film they just set up. The film is filled with moments like this, repeated lines or mantras that are supposed to establish ground rules or a moral center, that are then subsequently broken a few minutes later. People are repeatedly telling each other to let Chappie be his own “person” and let him do what he wants and then in next scene that exact same person is telling Chappie what to do, once again because it’s necessary to move the plot along. Neither the science-fiction elements nor characters operate with any logic to the story. I have a hard time believing a full script existed, at best the film seems based off an outline and some notes.
In terms of performances, Sharlto Copley does a solid job in the motion-capture role of Chappie. Chappie’s movements are always interesting, but Chappie’s personality, which ranges from infantile to thuggish, is too innocent to be threatening, too crass to be cute. Ninja and Yolandi and all the style they bring provide the film with an interesting look, and I think casting them was a brave and inspired decision. But the film provides them with little direction, so they mostly end up playing themselves which works in some scenes and in others not so much. The rest of the cast, made up of the extremely talented Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, and Sigourney Weaver, are all wasted. Patel’s Deon appears sporadically when the plot requires, and the film’s climax acts as if we’ve spent enough time with him to care about him. Sigourney Weaver appears for about 5 minutes total where she gets to say lines that actors of her stature must dream of: “Destroy that robot! Burn it to ash!” A mullet wearing Hugh Jackman plays a villainous rival robot developer, Vincent Moore, who is driven by office jealousy…and that’s it. Moore isn’t even a cliché, he’s not a character at all, just a plot
The film looks great, and once again Neil Blomkamp’s unique visual style and willingness to stay away from the American setting most sci-fi films lean on, is greatly appreciated. He makes a $50 million dollar movie look like a $100 million one, but we can only commend Blomkamp’s visual style and budgetary restraint so many times before we start wondering what else he has up his sleeve. With so many wasted performances and absurd contrivances in Chappie, Blomkamp can no longer rest on the title, “The Director Who Brought Us District 9” because now he’s “The Director Who Brought Us Chappie” and no one wants to be that. If Blomkamp doesn’t want that title to stick, it’s time for him to make some drastic career choices.