In 2009, Neill Blomkamp made his directorial debut with District 9, a giant special effects film, which also managed to be a clever allegory for apartheid and racism. Completed for $30 million, District 9 managed to perform on a blockbuster level, earning back $109 million in the US market alone. It connected with audiences and critics due to its complex characters, gorgeous effects (which still look fantastic), as well as a new style and view point not typically seen in American releases. The movie surprised many, quickly leading to Blomkamp being hailed as one of the “next big directors.”
After Elysium and now Chappie, one wonders: at what point do we begin to rethink that assessment?
Chappie tells the tale of robotics engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who builds unmanned police drones for a weapons corporation, Tetra Va. In his spare time he works on crafting the first artificial intelligence. He is given the opportunity to test his experimental A.I. when he is kidnapped by a group of gangsters: American, Yolandi and Ninja (yes, these really are their names). These miscreants hope to use Deon’s knowledge to turn off the drones he helped create, only to find out that is not an option. He offers to try his hand at making a sentient soldier for the gangster trio using his experimental A.I., giving life to Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley). As Chappie’s intelligence and awareness grow, he has to choose between right and wrong.
Does that sound convoluted? Well, the story is convoluted. That’s not even mentioning the secondary characters. Most important of whom, is Deon’s competitor, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman). The story borrows heavily from other (better) science fiction films in the genre, namely Robocop, Short Circuit, I, Robot, and even Blomkamp’s own District 9 and Elysium. One of the most glaring problems with the narrative is that it is thematically lacking a real drive. Only within the last thirty minutes of the film does a clear theme materialize, and by that point it’s too late to have any meaningful effect. This is such a shame, because some of the questions posed are more interesting and deserve to be explored. Questions concerning existence and creation, along with biblical allegories used, would provide something for the audience to mentally engage with the film.
Conversely, there were a number of far less compelling themes that were touched upon initially and not pursued any further. Hugh Jackman’s character, for instance, starts off as a counterpoint to the main protagonist and is referenced briefly as having been involved with the military. In no time at all Vincent becomes a scenery-chewing villain, willing to do anything to garner attention for his project; a thought controlled, mobile tank which may as well have been called ED-209! How did this design get past Robocop’s copyrights?
In a scene that completely broke any immersion the film had earned, Vincent (Jackman) pulls a gun on Deon in the Tetra Val office and starts threatening him for access to the Guard Key (Chappie’s MacGuffin). Vincent keeps this up for a minute or two, before laughing it all off, insisting it was just a practical. Without any further acknowledgment of what was just witnessed by everyone else in the office, Deon storms off, while all the other employees continue working. It’s cool though, his gun wasn’t loaded.
In what type of reality does this scene take place? How is this behavior on anyone’s part even remotely believable? Furthermore, what is this saying thematically? Is this supposed to be a comment on militarism? In the middle of his threats, his military involvement is brought up, making a clear connection between the violent reaction and the military. Is our take-away supposed to be that the military and its soldiers are brutish, borderline psychopaths? There’s more evidence to support this in the film’s climax, which has Vincent shutting down all of the police drones in order to manipulate his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), into allowing him to launch his personal robotic weapon. Doing so causes mass chaos and riots to erupt throughout Johannesburg, leading to mass casualties. Vincent doesn’t seem to be affected by any of it, though. Once again, in the final showdown, Vincent is seen relishing in the bloodshed and outright says as much. By the end his character has become a villain, simply for the sake of action. His character is not subtle, underwritten, and muddies up the story’s thematic drive, which, in a way, represents the movie as a whole.
The film’s biggest barrier involves its main human protagonists, Ninja and Yolandi, two musical-artists (from the group Die Antwoord) playing fictionalized versions of their stage personas. I think the audience’s reaction to Chappie will hinge solely on these two characters. If you are able to connect with the film, you are sure to enjoy the film. These dim witted gangsters will ruin the film for many audience members. They are sloppily written, and ill equipped to deliver the lines satisfactorily. Yolandi comes closest to being a worthwhile lead due to the maternal connection she develops with Chappie, allowing her to resemble an actual human towards the end. However, Ninja (her lover/partner-in-crime) is irredeemable through and through. One could imagine he was originally conceived as a ne’er-do-well making the best out of the circumstances afforded to him, but that’s simply not the case. His character is purely repellant and is a huge. Some of the most powerfully shot and staged moments belong to him and Yolandi, which feel utterly wasted on such lowly characters. It’s like giving a breath-taking action scene to Jar Jar Binks! No one wants to see that.
Even with all of these flaws and missteps, the film still manages to be watchable. One of the best resources the film has to offer is the titular character himself. Chappie is brought to life through a wonderful performance from Sharlto Copley, who imbues the robot with just the right amount of child-like wonder. He is rightfully given some of the more memorable moments and gags. There is a lot of joy to be had in watching Chappie learn and adapt to his introduction to a new world. In the last act he is given some excellent material with his creator, Deon. The two embark on a journey that posits fascinating ideas which should have been more fully explored. Regrettably, the film is more interested in rushing past these ideas to conclude with a final scene that will kill any enthusiasm for future stories from this world.
I’m not ready to write off Neill Blomkamp just yet, because I think there are still good movies to come from him. Chappie just isn’t one of them. It’s hard to overlook all of the major problems with the film’s narrative and characters, but it can’t be denied that it makes for an entertaining 2 hours. Chappie isn’t the travesty most critics are labeling it as, but it is another interesting misstep similar to Elysium. Just try not to put too much thought into it, and you might have a good time.