South African director Neill Blomkamp makes sci-fi action flicks that are both smarter and dumber than your average Hollywood offering. From District 9 to Elysium to Chappie, his movies have a tantalizing intelligence that’s never quite capitalized on. It’s like watching the smartest kid in class throw spitballs.
District 9 is an intriguing apartheid parable about segregated aliens – at least until the big guns come out for an annihilating climax. Elysium is a clever, futuristic consideration of immigration – at least until its main character (Matt Damon) transforms into a literal weapon. And Chappie teasingly toys with everything from drone warfare to artificial intelligence – at least until we get a rock ’em-sock ’em robot finale that plays like some unholy combination of Transformers and Real Steel. See a familiar pattern?
In short, Blomkamp’s films have weapons issues. These are movies acutely aware of the moral complexity surrounding weaponry – in their best moments, that’s exactly what they’re about – yet each of them devolves into a gun-glorifying climax that would have Rambo firing his machine guns into the air in approval. Without any satirical edge – say, something like Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop – they’re ultimately exercises in hypocrisy.
Chappie has an overly busy plot (another trademark of Blomkamp’s pictures), so here are the basics: after being kidnapped by a couple of DayGlo drug-runners (played by Ninja and Yolandi Visser of the South African rap group Die Antwoord), a robotics engineer (Dev Patel) is forced to upload his recently developed AI program into a decommissioned, robotic police officer. The result is a sentient weapon with the awareness of a baby, and much of the film charts the competing influences of Chappie’s kind “Maker” and his criminal, adoptive parents.
Ninja and Visser stomp all over the film looking like Iggy Pop and Lady Gaga gave each other haircuts while blindfolded.
It’s a scenario that’s ripe with real potential, especially as this odd arrangement takes on the contours of a dysfunctional family. But most of the tonal choices made to flesh this out are disastrous. Cringe-worthy comedy scenes of Chappie learning to walk and talk like a “gangster” are juxtaposed with harsh cruelty and violence, as when Chappie is beaten by group of thugs who mistake him for a regular police bot. Not helping to calibrate things are the enormous performances given by Ninja and Visser, who stomp all over the film looking like Iggy Pop and Lady Gaga gave each other haircuts while blindfolded. Blomkamp likes to shop at the Big & Tall store for his villains (consider Sharlto Copley in Elysium), but this pair is something else altogether. They make your average Wachowski henchmen look like wallflowers.
Speaking of Copley, his motion-capture performance here, which provides the voice and movements for Chappie, is nowhere near the level of artistry attained by the likes of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell in the Planet of the Apes films. Simpering and mincing about, Copley is partly undone by the fact that the story requires him to act like a silly child for much of the time. Then, as Chappie becomes more mature and independent, Copley mostly relies on wildly exaggerated movements, as if he were playing charades.
To be fair, the animated robot design itself is sharp (I especially like the touch that the damaged Chappie has one orange “ear”). Also on the plus side is Hugh Jackman’s unhinged performance as a rival engineer. He believes not in independent police robots, but in a military-grade, walking tank that a human can operate via a neural helmet. During a final showdown between this monster and Chappie, Jackman sits in his control room giggling like a deranged role-playing gamer who’s been given the joystick for a military drone. It’s the closest the film comes to satire.
Even this may be giving Chappie too much credit. I’m also hesitant to praise it for its provocative final moments, which suggest a future in which human consciousness can be stored on a flash drive. Like much of Blomkamp’s work, you see, Chappie fails to fully develop this idea in any real way. It’s just another target for his cinematic firing range.