Neill Blomkamp clearly has no shortage of fascinating ideas as a filmmaker. For years he’s specialized in truly original, high-concept sci-fi that seeks to blend social allegory with visceral imagery. His 2009 feature-length debut, District 9, blew critics, audiences, and box office expectations away through its mixture of documentarian slice of life meant to elicit comparisons to Apartheid, as well as a graphic action experience that questioned mankind’s disturbing (and all too real) thirst for stronger weapons technology. It’s even more surprising just how fantastic a movie it was in every technical sense, made with a modest 30 million dollar budget that puts most 100+ million action flicks to shame.
His follow up, Elysium, did not live up to those high expectations that Blomkamp set for himself, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in creativity and thought provocation, so you could have easily deemed it a fluke loss.
However, with his latest film Chappie, I’m starting to question if it was actually District 9 that was the fluke victory. While I admire Blomkamp’s unashamedly high-concept premise, Chappie is by far the director’s most heinously underwritten and unruly film yet.
Set in the very near-future, scientists have been able to create robots that act as police units to whittle down the rampant crime and gang activity in Johannesburg. Its lead scientist, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has more ambitious goals in mind, having recently perfected artificial intelligence technology that will allow a robot to learn like a baby growing into adulthood. After being kidnapped by local thugs Ninja and Yolandi (played by Die Antwoord members…. Ninja and Yolandi), who demand him to hand them over one of the robots to aid them in a heist to pay off a crime lord, he manages to link his software with a defective reject, a living, learning robot now named Chappie (Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley). In light of the thugs and Wilson butting heads over how Chappie should be raised, one of the men in Wilson’s office, soldier turned scientist Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), secretly attempts to sabotage the police program to further his own experiments.
Blomkamp once again teams up with his wife and District 9 co-writer Terri Tatchell to bring a lot of fascinating ideas to the table, and there was clearly no stone left unturned in their eyes. The film deals with weighty issues the likes of brutality versus logic in the world of law and order, the idea that children are only the pariahs that we establish them to be, and how our sins and vices eventually pass on to our kin, racial divides by way of how portions of humanity would treat advancements in technology as something to be feared, as well as religious ties to mortality and the afterlife.
The problem with these ideas is not that any one of them is less interesting than another. The problem is that Blomkamp and Tatchell have no idea which one they want to see all the way through as the film’s defining commentary, hopping back and forth between them with no ease whatsoever. That still wouldn’t be a problem if only Blomkamp had developed them better, but he instead just stumbles upon them with seemingly no build up or previous establishment, and he then treats all of them with heavy-handed symbolism. The most blatant of which is the religious angle, which attempts to create an admirable examination of why God would create his creations knowing they’ll eventually die, with Wilson representing God, and Chappie representing human, questioning his very existence, the concept of immortality, and all of this comes to a heated boil in the climax, which could have provided a great emotional potency, but instead feels like a cheap Deus Ex Machina with not one of the main characters having to sacrifice anything. It all loses the novelty and humanity that made District 9 such a great film, and you can tell how sapped for ideas the writers were because of how much they try to rehash the same beats and structure that made that film work, and here it truly feels like well-trodden ground.
Beyond that, the very set ups behind its world and lore are also silly, right down to the setting in 2016. Via blatant exposition dump through an Anderson Cooper retrospective, the film’s prologue sets up a preposterous idea that in one year from now, scientists in South Africa will have not only perfected fully mobile and battle hardened robotic drones, but also free thinking artificial intelligence. Even if you’re willing to buy into that idea, the rest of the film further tests your tolerance for illogical thinking. The facility where the robots are manufactured has got to have the worst security procedures of any company in cinema, allowing employees to commit rule-breaking actions and freely run wild with their technological products with no ill-effects, but would undoubtedly get anyone in the real world fired in a nanosecond. Characters do things with seemingly no proper or understandable motivations, and its overall silliness becomes distracting. It’s especially jarring to the overall dramatic tone to this film, as its humor eventually becomes juvenile and lame, and even moments when we do laugh are at the movie’s expense, not with it. For Pete’s sake, Patel’s character gets inspiration to link his software to Chappie by a freaking cat poster! Unless you’re Morgan Freeman in The Lego Movie, cat posters will never work in one of your movies.
This eventually gives way to the people on the screen, with only one of the actors retaining any sense of dignity, and it’s ironically the one that spent the most time in post-production. Sharlto Copley is quickly becoming a great character actor, and in his third collaboration with Neill Blomkamp, he has no less commitment to the material he’s presented with. Performed via motion capture, it’s his moments without dialogue and merely told through body language and expressions that make the character a half-success. I say half because the writing is still flawed, and a great actor can only do so much to elevate it.
He’s not aided by a subpar supporting cast. Dev Patel basically plays a harder edged version of his overexcited character from The Newsroom, and his geekiness tends to clash with the weightier issues. Sigourney Weaver shows up for ten minutes to play (essentially) C. Montgomery Burns, her character a money-grubbing cynic. Hip-hop artists Ninja and Yolandi fare no better, and their lack of acting experience shows. Ninja runs through the repetitive motions as an irredeemable idiot of a man, speaking in annoying “gangsta” slang, and Yolandi tries to add warmth as Chappie’s semi-foster parent, but is still undercut by her overall flat characterization and grating high-pitched Vib Ribbon-esque exclamations. Between those previously mentioned four, as well as one over the top villain played up to be a complete caricature of South African crime activity, complete with dreadlocks and an accent so thick that his dialogue needs to be subtitled (despite speaking plain English), I was having trouble deciding who was the most undignified.
By far the worst offender comes in the form of Hugh Jackman. His character is unintentionally hysterical, an obviously crazed and unstable man who freely walks about and pulls stunts in the workplace that would have him fired or arrested were this a world of sane logic, and everything about his characterization reeks of oversimplified arrogance and cynicism, right down to the black and white clash of violence versus logical reasoning. You’d think Jackman, being the talent that he is, would manage to transcend those limitations. But no! He instead plays right into those stereotypes, with a permanent sneer painted across his face, and when the climax rolls out, he goes full on bloodthirsty and insane, mugging and giggling in Jim Carrey Riddler mode. As much as I love Jackman, I couldn’t stop laughing at how horrible his scenes late in the movie are. They might as well have gone all the way and renamed his character Evilman McMoustacheTwirler.
Even in the technical sense, Blomkamp has lost a step. The movie has absolutely no consistent or coherent flow to it, flashing through moments in Chappie’s new life with no discipline, and dragging for what feels like an eternity. Boyhood, at nearly three hours, felt shorter than this movie. The effects work are also not Blomkamp at his most impressive, for while Chappie himself may look decent, the rest of the computer imagery are completely disenchanting and full of seams. On the action front, the pacing and staging are also greatly disappointing, and with no proper emotional connection having been built up before, there’s just no reason to be invested. It certainly doesn’t help that these scenes are littered with nauseating shaky-cam. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer, fresh off an Oscar nomination for his work on Interstellar, supplies the film with the world’s first musical score comprised entirely of trailer music.
I wanted to give this movie the benefit of the doubt, even going so far as to intentionally keep myself in the dark on plot points and review scores, but I was frustrated by how much I found Chappie to be an utterly appalling film from start to finish. I truly appreciate Blomkamp trying to establish more creative and original sci-fi in the mainstream cinema market, but wasting this much talent and potential on a script this toothless and muddy is absolutely criminal. Despite the best efforts of Blomkamp and Tatchell, its potentially interesting concepts get lost in the shuffle, its characterization a substantial downgrade from District 9, and great actors under misguided direction can only help so much. The action is disappointing, logic is laughably thrown out the window, and as mildly endearing as he may be, Chappie is no WALL-E. Truth be told, it’s a film that only makes you angrier the more you think about it, and it’s an early contender for worst film of the year.
That still doesn’t mean I’m completely giving up hope on Blomkamp, and perhaps he'll bounce back with the newly announced Alien sequel, but Chappie itself is living proof that no matter how original your storyline may be, it won't absolve you of lazy writing and execution.
* / *****