If you were hoping writer/director Neill Blomkamp was going to rebound from 2013’s Elysium, I’ve got some bad news.
Don’t laugh, I’m being cool!
Remember when District 9 was nominated for Best Picture? That seems further and further away now. South African wunderkind Neill Blomkamp was supposed to be our Next Great Auteur, a visionary filmmaker who fused a lived-in science fiction aesthetic with his desire to confront real-world issues. His first film is still regarded as a genre classic; his follow-up, Elysium, was too ambitious by half (even he recently admitted he “f—ed it up”); and now this, which was supposed to be a lighter, more comedic departure, diminishes the returns even further without probing into much of anything — not even the bland platitudes the advertising promised.
First, the positives: Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s muse, gives a tremendous motion capture performance as the title character. There’s a real physicality in the design and the execution of Chappie himself (credit also to the wizards at Image Engine, who have worked on each of Blomkamp’s films) — and Copley is entirely endearing as a character with an evolving consciousness, believably torn between two very different worlds.
Chappie — formerly known as “Scout #22,” a police robot due to be recycled — gets a new lease on life when his developer, Deon (Dev Patel) takes him home as the subject of a world-changing experiment: to give him a sentient consciousness. Scout #22 will be able to not only learn as a human can, but at an exponential rate; he will be even able to create and evaluate art. But unfortunately for Deon and for us, before testing can get underway, he and the ‘bot are waylaid and kidnapped by a group of desperate Jo-burg lowlifes who want the robots programmed for their own self-preserving ends.
Your enjoyment of Chappie, the third of Blomkamp’s “thematic trilogy” centering on the haves, the have-nots, and robotic exoskeletons obliterating humans in gory fashion, will likely hinge on your tolerance for Die Antwoord, the rap-rave duo improbably placed at the story’s center. There’s a lot of neat stuff going on in the film — Blomkamp’s eye for design, for one thing, is as sharp as ever — but his ill-advised obsession with these two non-actors nearly tanks it. “Ninja” and “Yo-Landi,” as they are known in real life (and in the movie, I guess so they don’t get confused), quickly assume parental control over Chappie; most of the film takes place in the abandoned, insanely over-decorated train station they use as their lair — it looks like an IKEA store on LSD.
Chappie, whose mind is initially as blank and impressionable as a toddler’s, wants to paint and read stories with his “mommy” Yo-Landi, but he also wants the approval of his “daddy,” Ninja. (I can’t believe that’s a sentence I just typed.) Ninja needs Chappie to be a key piece of mysterious heist that will allow them to pay back a underworld kingpin who wants them dead, but Deon has instilled in Chappie something of a moral code; he won’t “do crimes,” as he repeats, or fire guns. But he will learn how to walk and talk like a “gangster” — or Ninja’s version of one, anyway. Throughout the process, Die Antwoord’s own music blares on the soundtrack; if I ever have to hear another one of their songs again, it’ll be too soon. And where do they keep getting all the screen-printed shirts with their faces and names on them? Where are they getting power from? Why are their guns covered in fluorescent DayGlo paint?
These sequences — due largely to Copley’s charming line readings — aren’t without their chuckles, particularly the stretch where Ninja and his American cohort, America (indeed), briefly lure Chappie into becoming a tough-talking carjacker. Chappie agrees to help them because he knows his battery (which has been fused to his armor) is irreplaceable, and he’ll need money for a new body. And as Ninja and (particularly) Yo-Landi become more humanized, it’s hard not to become at least a little bit attached to this makeshift miscreant family, even as Deon starts to lose the battle for Chappie’s soul.
Deon, for his part, has even bigger fish to fry — in the form of a mullet-ed Hugh Jackman, playing a former military man named Vincent whose rival AI program, MOOSE, is seen as overkill when compared to the highly effective Scouts. Jackman, his upper body too big for his shirt, clutches a prop rugby ball like a talisman as he plots to destroy Deon, and eventually Chappie (he also drives a massive pickup truck, and is religious, because…ugh). But he fits right in to the Blomkamp model of Meathead Antagonist, just as so many other elements in the production seem like lesser copies of the films that came before — but here, crow-barred next to scenes with Chappie that might almost be considered heartwarming, Vincent and the streaks of gore that follow him feel more and more out of place as the film continues. (Sigourney Weaver’s presence, seemingly just to give the film credibility, is best not commented on.)
My biggest problem with Chappie is one of tone: Blomkamp is once again juggling too many ideas, and has wasted a fantastic premise because he can’t restrain his baser impulses. This isn’t the kind of argument I usually make, and it certainly isn’t the “cool” argument to make, but I think this could have been really special with a lighter MPAA rating. Instead, it’s a mishmash of degradation, violence, and indecipherable South African vulgarities; there’s a death in the film’s climax that’s so over-the-top in its brutality, I lost interest in everything that followed. Again, that’s not a side I’m usually on — Tarantino and The Raid have their place — but this isn’t The Raid. It’s f—ing Chappie. You know, this Chappie?
The ending (to be kind) is massively problematic, both from a story and thematic standpoint; if you thought Elysium‘s resolution was a cheat, you’re not prepared for the literal deus ex machina of Chappie. The final moments, right before the film plays another Die Antwoord “composition” over the credits, had me bolting out of my chair and out the door simply out of embarrassment. And it’s a real shame, because Blomkamp is obviously talented — but he’s become like the stage magician who keeps returning to stage with slight variations on the same trick (and set up by fake documentary footage). Ask M. Night Shyamalan: that’s not going to turn out well. And now he’s attached himself to the Alien franchise, seemingly through the sheer force of the internet — I hope, if he’s learned anything from his last two productions, it’s to step away from the word processor for a while and just focus on the visuals. It’s what he’s best at.