Film Review – Chappie
If one thing is for certain, Neill Blomkamp is a director with big ideas. Early into his career and we are now starting to see the themes and style that make up his storytelling. The distinct clarity in the world he presents earned him an Oscar nomination for District 9 (2009). After the let down of Elysium (2013) – a let down he has admitted to – Blomkamp had an opportunity to refine his approach with Chappie (2015). Sadly, this outing has not solidified his strengths but amplified his weaknesses. Visually, it’s a sight to behold: technically sound with tons of kinetic energy. But at the script level it lacks attention to detail as it barrels through its underwritten story. Like the robots populating it, the film desires to be something more but lacks the heart to get there.
Blomkamp (who co-wrote the screenplay with Terri Tatchell) returns to his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa in the near future. This time he tackles the theme of artificial intelligence, placing a robotic police force in the city to help suppress the crime rate. The droids are a success, acting with pinpoint precision. An early scene shows them at work, with CGI blending them into environments smoothly. The lead engineer of the force, Deon (Dev Patel) believes they can be better. He’s convinced he can create a unit that has a fully formed consciousness, like a human. Against the wishes of his boss (an underused Sigourney Weaver), Deon steals a unit meant for the scrap heap and successfully programs a personality into it, eventually becoming known as “Chappie” (Sharlto Copley).
Right away, we see how Blomkamp lays a promising foundation but does not follow through. What makes us human, do we have a soul, where do we go after we die? The questions seem to be asked in passing. We never understand why Deon has such a God-complex regarding artificial intelligence, willing to even break the law. These are themes that are lightly touched on, but instead of building upon them Blomkamp turns away and focuses on the spectacle. The special effects and action sequences are very good, accompanied by a thumping score from Hans Zimmer. As much as the aesthetics look and feel convincing, they’re ultimately hollow because the emotional attachment is so thinly drawn.
Incomprehensibly, Deon loses Chappie into the hands of three criminals: Ninja and Yolandi (of the South African rap group Die Antwoord) and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo). The three see an opportunity to use Chappie in robberies, but because Chappie has such a child-like personality, they approach him like parents educating their child. Here is an opportunity for us to examine the complexities of Nature Vs. Nurture, but the three criminals are such bone-headed thugs that nothing about them can be taken seriously. Ninja and Yolandi are not experienced actors and it shows, especially with Ninja. He swaggers and postures with ridiculous mannerism as he shows Chappie how to be a “proper gangsta.” They are such caricatures that it is impossible for us to have any sympathy for them when asked.
Hugh Jackman does the best he can as Vincent, a rival engineer to Deon. Worried about the dangers of artificial intelligence, Vincent works to provide an alternative. His solution is the development of The Moose, a human-controlled armored robot that – in design – is a direct lift of Ed 209 from RoboCop (1987). Jackman appears to be having fun in his role, sporting high khaki shorts and a halfway mullet. But like the rest of the characters, he is defined one dimensionally. He is your basic villain, hell bent on getting what he wants without any rhyme or reason other than straight greed. For someone who’s so brilliant, Vincent is an idiot. This is a guy who will threaten someone in the office with a handgun as a joke. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t get reprimanded for it.
Swirling through the silliness is Chappie. Sharlto Copley brings a level of humanity to the character. Chappie is often confused, scared, and upset about everything happening around him. The dog-like antennas were a welcomed touch, allowing the character an avenue to express emotion. A lot of Chappie’s naiveté to the world plays for comedic effect, and there are a few laughs because of it. This became a detriment as things moved along. Chappie is described as having an intelligence that quickly adjusts and learns; yet his understanding of “right and wrong” only comes around when needed. He’s aware that shooting people is bad, but he’ll be more than willing to throw a knife into someone’s leg.
Chappie ends with a preposterous final act, afraid of drawing a hard line and opting for the easy way out. The tone is never firmly established, resulting in a film that lacks all the nuance it’s trying to evoke. I still look forward to Blomkamp’s future endeavors including his Alien sequel, but after his last two films I’m not as confident as I originally was. He is clearly a technician and has a strong visual eye, but with Chappie his writing (with Tatchell) severely crippled the final product.