Neill Blomkamp won a lot of fans over with his debut feature District 9, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. His sophomore effort Elysium had a lot of folks thinking maybe he was a one-hit wonder. Even Blomkamp admitted the story wasn’t very good. A few weeks before his latest film Chappie was released, it was announced that he’ll be directing the new Alien movie. Nailing that deal before it was screened was a wise move because Chappie is all over the place. It’s an ambitious, formulaic crowdpleaser that doesn’t know when to end and is crippled by the stunt casting of Blomkamp’s South African pals Die Antwoord.
Much more in the vein of A.I. than RoboCop, Chappie follows the developing consciousness of a sentient robot created by Deon (Dev Patel). He’s done so in secret because the powers that be (Sigourney Weaver) have forbidden him from screwing up the successful “scout” (robot cop) program. Things turn sour when Deon is kidnapped by Ninja, Yolandi, and America, three desperate crooks who need to pull off a major score to pay off a debt. Back at the lab, Deon’s bitter co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman with a mullet) is urgently trying to get his massive ED-209 wannabe integrated into the police force.
I mentioned ED-209 because there are a few artistic similarities to RoboCop, particularly the 2014 remake. There have been some obvious Short Circuit jokes buzzing around the net too, but ultimately Blomkamp’s film falls more in line with A.I., as it tracks Chappie’s evolution and how shitty and exploitative humans are to everything under the sun. At first, Chappie is like a puppy, shrinking back at every loud noise and raised voice. He then begins to pick up the Afrikaner street slang of Die Antwoord, “gangster number one” and all a that. Pedantic Deon wants Chappie’s creativity to blossom while Ninja wants to teach him to be a thug. These education scenes drag on and on and only graze the surface of exploring how morality is passed on and what consciousness really is.
The script is filled with moments that range from eye-rolling to just plain silly. There is a lot of humor that works very well, like the car stealing montage for instance, but a lot of it is unintentional as well. How quickly Die Antwoord reach a conclusion about how to deal with the scouts, for instance. Also, after kidnapping Deon, they let him go because he promises to come back the next day. Moments like that serve the story (Deon has his conflict with Vincent to deal with, after all), but they’re such face-palm moments that they distract from rather than propel the film. His writing is so straightforward at times that it makes the story feel dumbed down. When Chappie sees the aftermath of a dog fight, for instance, he learns how the world is literally dog-eat-dog. Get it?!
The biggest distraction of all is Die Antwoord, whose stage personas are thrown right into this sci-fi world in an abrasive way. People unfamiliar with them will probably be baffled. “Why does it say Zef everywhere?” “Why are there dicks drawn all over the walls?” “Why are they wearing shirts with their faces on them?” So many moments feel like plugs for their music, complete with close-ups of Die Antwoord shirts, that it completely takes away any seriousness the plot is supposed to have. How can I take anything in the movie seriously when Ninja is on screen wearing short-shorts and an oversized baby blue sweatshirt with dolphins on it, carrying a bright yellow gun and mugging to the camera like a last-gasp gangsta? On its own it may be a striking image, but in the dramatic world Blomkamp is trying to establish, it’s grating on the eyes. Yolandi is the least silly of the two and her motherly instincts towards Chappie at least come across as genuine.
As for Chappie himself (voiced by Sharlto Copley), Weta did an amazing job with the design and he, unlike Ninja, fits fantastically into Blomkamp’s world. Copley’s motion-capture performance is brilliant. He’s expressive and believably interacts with his environment and other characters. The actions scenes are very well-crafted and excitingly staged. There’s a moment during the climactic rumble where a strong bit of violence is happening behind Deon, but Blomkamp stays focused on Deon rather than the graphic clobbering behind him. That’s a great touch and shows Blomkamp does have some nuance as a director. He knows what shots will pack the emotional punch, the problem is there are SO many slow-mo money shots that they become quickly obvious rather than dramatic.
There’s a lot of heart and ambition in Chappie that are sadly driven down by the silliness of Die Antwoord and the formulaic nature of the script. It certainly is a crowdpleaser (who wouldn’t root for Chappie?) but after the crowd is pleased, the film drags on another 10 minutes or so. There are a couple spots that would have made perfect endings, but Blomkamp keeps Chappie going until he can squeeze another Die Antwoord promo in there. The best science fiction always asks What if the world were like this, wouldn’t that suck? Then it uses that as a backdrop to say something about our society as it is now. Chappie is unconcerned with this and feels like a retread of Blomkamp’s previous films.
Alien fans, hang on to your butts.