Just a few short years ago, it seemed that Neill Blomkamp was on his way to becoming a formidable force in the cinema. District 9 was a rousing success with critics and audiences. Hell, it even got nominated for Best Picture. Then the sheen started to fade just a little with Elysium. Another original sci-fi film, this time starring Matt Damon, Elysium was chaotic visually and undercooked thematically. It played everything with such a heavy hand that it’s almost surprising it wasn’t named Elysium: It’s About Income Inequality. Just a few short weeks ago, news broke that Blomkamp would be taking over the Alien franchise for a fifth movie featuring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Of course, all this news broke while doing the press tour for Chappie. If you were feeling excited about that new Alien movie, I think you might want to temper those expectations.
Chappie opens with documentary style interviews, much in the same way as District 9, before flashing back in time-a year-and-a-half in order to actually tell its story. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the crime rate has risen beyond control. In order to combat this problem, the government has commissioned a series of robot police officers, called scouts, to handle day-to-day operations. They’re hardwired with a system of checks and balances so they aren’t manipulated from any external forces. This is quickly fleshed out in a segment on Anderson Cooper 360, where we’re introduced to the creator of the scouts Deon (Dev Patel), and his professional rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman). During this segment, Deon expresses his desire to create an artificial intelligence while Vincent expresses his opposition, and that’s about the extent of their conflict, or all that the film cares to explore.
During an extended action sequence following the introduction, we see the scouts in action. Through a high speed chase, the desperate and dirty criminals, and a robotic police force, the film feels reminiscent of Robocop (both the original and the remake). In the middle of a shootout, one of the scouts is damaged beyond repair, while a trio of violent criminals Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja from Die Antwood, which I’m told is some kind of musical outfit), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) make their escape. Meanwhile, Deon has just had a breakthrough with his A.I. programming. Going over the head of his boss, Michelle Bradley (Weaver), Deon takes the destroyed scout home to reprogram it, but the trio of misfits kidnap him on his way home. Since he can’t meet his captor’s demands that he shut down the entire robotic police force, he agrees to give them his new creation. Upon the consciousness being entered into the machine, the robot takes on the mannerisms of child or a frightened animal. Dubbed Chappie by Yolandi, the intelligent robot begins to learn language, while Ninja wants to teach Chappie to commit crimes, to become “number one original gangster.”
Between Chappie and Elysium, one has to wonder if Blomkamp has an ongoing bet with someone, possibly the devil, to turn interesting concepts into uninteresting stories. Subtlety isn’t a work in Blomkamp’s lexicon. There’s a clumsiness to the way that Jackman’s character is portrayed – there’s never a moment’s doubt that he’ll turn into a villain. But this is also extended to Chappie’s relationship with Yolandi, who is his mother figure. It’s intended to be the film’s emotional heart, but Blomkamp can’t make their relationship something meaningful because he’s so busy drawing attention to the nature of their relationship. The same could be said of the moment when Ninja teaches Chappie about his own mortality – the pertinent information repeated constantly.
Chappie himself is the film’s most interesting character, not a single one of the human archetypes comes close in any aspect. Played by Sharlto Copley, this childlike robot is cute and offers the film with its most humorous moments. However, Blomkamp seems lost on what to do with the character. Shortly after Chappie is created, he’s set loose on the streets where we get to watch this creation get tortured by various groups of people. It’s the sci-fi equivalent of those Sarah McLachlan ads with tortured animals – “Please adopt a Chappie today.”
As a whole, Chappie is a loose collection of missed opportunities. Not only is Sigourney Weaver wasted with an entirely pointless character, the film is devoid of saying anything of substance about the issues it deals with. But surely there’s a commentary on the militarization of the police? Nope. Okay, well I’m sure they explore the morality surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence, right? Nope. But they did at least sneak in some commentary about drone warfare? Nope. Fine, but what about commentary on capitalism and weapons manufacturers? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zip.
Chappie plays out like a Short Circuit/Robocop crossover fan fiction. Of course, minus any kind of coherent commentary on the world in which we live. It starts out as a passable sci-fi action flick before slowly and slowly building into tedium. By the time the big action finale hits, complete with a pimped-out ED-209 wannabe, Chappie has become a punishing bore of a movie. While Blomkamp’s action direction is much improved from Elysium, his writing has gotten worse. I’m not ready to completely write off Blomkamp, though it’s as if he’s inviting me to, but I’d like to see him taken away from writing duties, especially on this next Alien. Like Jupiter Ascending, I wanted to like Chappie. I want original sci-fi films out there, but sci-fi is supposed to ask big questions, explore the unknown, and bring us a sense of wonder. Chappie just doesn’t do that.
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One area that Chappie exceedingly fails is in regards to the film’s conclusion. Having been created in a body with a short battery life, Chappie devises a way to save his own consciousness on a Sony laptop computer. During the big shoot out, though, Deon is shot in the gut and Yolandi sacrifices herself to save Ninja from being killed by ED-209 (generic rip-off model). Now Chappie is able to save Deon by transferring his consciousness into a robot body. Then Chappie transfers himself to another robot body. And then the film concludes with Chappie transferring Yolandi’s consciousness into a robot body. There’s nothing dramatic or interesting in this. It prevents any of the film’s characters from making meaningful sacrifices, in this case the greatest sacrifice. If death is off the table, where are the dramatic stakes? Even worse, these decisions are made with no extra thought given to them. Had Deon allowed himself to die, fearing life in a new unnatural body, in order for Chappie to survive, that would’ve been a meaningful sacrifice for the character – the creator protecting his creation. But the film doesn’t go there. Like anything else that might be construed as substance, Chappie doesn’t have time for that.