Directed by Neil Blomkamp
Opens March 6
With the release of Chappie, instincts on writer-director Neill Blomkamp seem divided on praising him as a sci-fi visionary and potential savior of the Alien franchise and burying him as a derivative, diminishing hack. Maybe we can split the difference: bury him up to his shoulders and give him a heartfelt talking-to. Chappie, being the misadventures of a Johnny 5-ish robot who Johnny 5-ishly gains real consciousness, isn’t quite the type of movie only a talented director could make, but it’s not the kind of thing anonymous hacks churn out. For most directors, hacks or not, this sci-fi-action-comedy-drama wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
For most viewers, it may not be. From the get-go, Blomkamp cross-cuts for a (mostly metaphorical, but not always) global view when he might be better-served by something more intimate—the kind of project Chappie was initially described as, before it became whatever this is. The movie opens on pseudo-documentary interviews, then news footage, discussing advances in robotic technology, zeroing in on the use of an all-robot police force in, of course, Johannesburg, South Africa. We meet Deon (Dev Patel), an architect of these AI cops, who’s secretly working on even more advanced programming; Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a military man whose mega-robots are being shunted aside for the more human-scale version; a small and dimwitted gang of ruffians (principle members played by Yolandi Visser and Ninja of the South African rap duo Die Antwoord) looking for a way to beat the robot cops; and, finally, Chappie (performed by Blomkamp’s De Niro, Sharlto Copley), the thinking robot Deon creates at gunpoint after the gang kidnaps him, looking for a nonexistent magic remote that will turn off all the cops in one fell swoop.
It’s a lot of characters and a lot motivations and Blomkamp does a pretty lousy job keeping them straight; they cease to exist when they leave the frame, failing to develop any hint of inner lives. Eventually, the story is pitched as a battle for control of a robot’s developing soul, with Deon preaching idealism, and some of the gang members teaching violence and swagger. But what may have been intended as moral ambiguity turns muddled. For all of Blomkamp’s supposed lack of subtlety, it’s pretty tricky to suss out what he or his movie actually thinks of artificial intelligence beyond that it likes Chappie. All other sympathies seem reverse-engineered from there, with little regard to narrative coherence.
Of course, it’s silly to expect narrative coherence from Die Antwoord fan fiction, which I swear to you is what a lot of this movie resembles. Yolandi Visser and Ninja play characters named Yolandi and Ninja, often wearing Die Antwoord t-shirts, while Die Antwoord songs (non-diegetically, I think) play on the soundtrack. The metatextual elements get even weirder when Yolandi shows up late in the movie wearing a Chappie t-shirt; I half-expected to find out their third gang member was played by Blomkamp himself, and for the movie to end with the filmmaker joining Yolandi, Ninja, and Chappie on mystery-solving adventures. As with the movie’s sci-fi ideas, it’s hard to figure out what Blomkamp wanted out of this culture-clash between a sentient robot and dystopian versions of a popular cult rap act, two cultures so seemingly specific that I’m not sure either of them exists outside of this movie. While he’s at it, Blomkamp also does wonderfully strange things with Hugh Jackman: outfitted in shorts, a polo shirt, and the beginnings of a fine mullet, Jackman does some choice lurking and stewing, and gives his most Australian performance in years. The strangest bits of Chappie hint at a smaller, stranger movie that wears its ragged looseness with more confidence than this half-measure.
It’s worth noting, too, that not all of the charges leveled against Blomkamp are particularly fair. So he loves Johannesburg, setting his three sci-fi movies so far in the same basic location and aesthetic; Paul Greengrass loves to shoot control rooms in every movie he makes, but hardly anyone gives him shit over it. So Blomkamp tends to veer into action sequences to solve his conflicts; so do James Cameron and Peter Jackson. Theoretically, that’s how movies like this work. One problem here, though, is that besides Chappie himself—a beautifully designed humanoid robot with antenna ears and a blinking read-out where eyes should be, and, I should note, an absolute bloody wonder of a seamless special-effects creation—Blomkamp’s images aren’t particularly expressive. His action flourishes are readable, but not especially inventive; the cinematography exercises a predictable repertoire of helicopter establishing shots, slow-motion, and digital-POV stuff. Unlike Cameron, who has the rare gift of smoothing over whatever cliches and contrivances he employs through his mega-action climaxes, Blomkamp is still sorting through his characters during his big climax, running in circles as people are killed off, avenged, revived, and, in the case of Sigourney Weaver’s disappointingly nothing role as head of Big Robot, shuffled offscreen with no consequence one way or the other.
Yet Chappie isn’t as loathsome as its biggest detractors will have you believe. There’s something likable about its weird grab-bagginness; Elysium, Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9, was disappointing for its impeccably designed roteness, a mistake Blomkamp seems hellbent on avoiding here. This is arguably a worse-crafted movie than Elysium, but a more interesting one. A couple more movies in this direction, and he’ll at least be making failures for the ages.