After he delivered one of the most impressive debuts of modern times with District 9, I was patiently waiting for director Neill Blomkamp to take his place as the messiah for grungy, politically charged, science fiction – unfortunately, years later, I’m still waiting.
His follow up, Elysium, came with a list of socially relevant hot topics, such as the yawning casm of the class divide, or the continuing issue of health care, and added it to some impressively thought out world building and a selection of cool, kick-ass weapons that routinely reduced the human form to splattery yogurt. However, despite of the sight of a bald Matt Damon bolted into a rusting exoskeleton, something seemed missing and all the various aspects of the flick failed to gel like a well oiled machine. Still, hope persevered with the arrival of 2015’s Chappie, yet another socially conscious sci-fi actioner that fused the CPUs of Robocop and Short Circuit together and dropped them into the typically squalid world of a near future South Africa.
After the crime rate of Johannesburg soars to the point where it made other sci-fi dystopias look like the Shire in comparison, new, virtually indestructible, robotic police units known as Scouts were deployed to great success thanks to the brain power of scientist Deon Wilson. However, while Wilson’s robots manage to bring the crime rate down, all is not copacetic within the halls of weapons manufacturer Tetravaal as bible thumping soldier turned engineer, Vincent Moore, seethes that his project, the ED-209-a-like MOOSE, is suffering budget cuts.
However, creating metal lawmen to stamp out crime isn’t enough for Deon who has the much bigger aim of creating fully aware artificial intelligence and, unbeknownst to his bosses, tries to create it off the books within the body of a damaged Scout. The good news is that he manages to pull it off, the bad news is that he’s hijacked by desperate gang members Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika who are in dire need of funds after pissing off local Kingpin, Hippo. Thinking that they can use a reprogrammed Scout to aid them in a heist, they maintain a very shaky relationship with Deon as they try teach an infant A.I. (dubbed Chappie) two very different outlooks on life.
As Chappie struggles to get his metal head around the opposing ethics Deon and Ninja keep hurling at the innocent robot, Vincent sees that whatever it is Deon is up to and tries to maneuver matters to try and get his ludicrously tooled up dreadnaught in the field where he feels it belongs.
As all these fleshy, soft humans try to goad, threaten and plead with Chappie to follow certain paths for various goals, the blue-eyed ‘bot struggles to find his own way in a cruel world.
Much like Elysium, Chappie comes unfairly burdened with the task to try and remotely be equal to District 9, a task that seemed to get ever more impossible with ever attempt Blomkamp made, however, due to some weird choices on the part of the South African auteur, Chappie ends up easily being the least of his gritty trilogy.
Once again, it’s a shame, because, as seen in his later string of experimental shorts collected under the banner of Oats Studios, there really isn’t a filmmaker working today that can craft such tangible examples of future shock – and yet when it comes to grafting a compelling story to go with the visuals, Blomkamp stumbles at more hurdles than a boozed up Olympic athlete.
The main problem is the casting of South African zef rap-rave group Die Antwoord as metafictional versions of their stage personas – or, at least I sincerely hope they’re metafictional, as these grotesque, gurning, mulleted versions may stand as one of the most irritating examples of music artists making the jump to film. The bleach blonde Yolandi isn’t quite so bad as she takes on the role of mother to the exceptionally impressionable Chappie and does a decent, if unnuanced, job at it; but the ranting, posturing Ninja struts about the place, banging on about being cool, wearing vile bling and generally being an incredible prick that makes every scene he’s in genuinely tiresome to sit through. If you needed an example how bad he and his character is, then get this – he almost single handedly negates the fact that this film contains Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel and Sigourney Weaver single handedly; quite the feat, no?
To be fair, of the three actors I just mentioned, only Jackman makes any real impact with Patel reduced to looking panic stricken as his life’s work is compromised by gold-toothed idiots and Weaver barely clocking in in the same kind of ineffectual cameo Jodie Foster had in Elysium. But Jackman’s Vincent is a genuinely dorky villain, stalking round the office wearing a mullet and shorts combo that’s as abrasive as his, bullying, hypocritical personality and you can tell that the Australian actor is clearly relishing using his own accent and dropping peculiar colloquialisms like “going off like a frog in a sock” whenever he can.
However, the other thing that sabotages Chappie is, surprisingly, Chappie himself. Despite being rendered beautifully in photo-realistic CGI, the adorability factor of this self-aware tin can is fatally hindered by the fact that Sharlto Copley’s gibbering performance is easily as off-putting as Ninja’s. Instead of giving the ubiquitous ‘bot the sort of wide-eyed innocence seen in such fish out of water characters as Number 5 and E.T., Copley portrays the droid as once of those annoying types of over stimulated kids who ricochet around the dance floor of a wedding while utterly tripping on sugar and even when he’s being treated horrendously by his surrogate parents, it’s incredibly tough to stir up much empathy as the mechanoid obnoxiously rambles through every scene it’s in. Simply put, he’s more annoying an appliance than the Talky Toster from that episode of Red Dwarf…
Among the messy plot, Blomkamp characteristically has a lot to say about nature vs. nurture, abusive parenting, over reliance on technology and corporations putting commerce over science; but after bringing up all these points, he kind of forgets to do anything with them, letting the threads just hang there awkwardly while he resolves the story with a typically violent (and admittedly awesome) shootout.
Most ironically of all, all of the most interesting and original stuff happens in the last ten minutes which hint at Chappie building a small, human/robot family of his own due to brain transference and a surprisingly high mortality rate among the cast, but it seemed to be the last straw for Blomkamp who wouldn’t make another full length feature until 2021’s Demonic.
Yet another disappointment from a promising director, Chappie has intelligence, artificial or otherwise, but it doesn’t have the smarts to make this jumble of cyberpunk and stunt casting work in a way that isn’t as irritating as a screaming adolescent.