Rating: 2½ stars (out of 4)
Chappie (2015): Dir. Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Based upon the short film “Tetra Vaal” written and directed by Blomkamp. Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Watkin “Ninja” Jones, Yo-Landi Visser, and Sigourney Weaver. Rated R for violence, language, and brief language. Running time: 120 minutes.
Chappie is the kind of film that plays best if you can accept Neill Blomkamp’s shortcomings as a filmmaker, particularly when it comes to narrative storytelling. This was true even of the solid District 9, which culminated in a climactic shoot-em-up gorefest that left few ideas in its wake.
Yet after three films, it’s clear Blomkamp has a real gift for sci-fi aesthetic. The visual effects, design, and photography of his films hit real heights in sci-fi or any other genre. Subtlety, thy name sure ain’t Blomkamp—but if you look past that fact, you can admire his ability to live and breathe within the most preposterous of worlds.
The story is familiar, even if the setting is not (Blomkamp has purposely set his film in Johannesburg once again). To help combat escalating crime, private robotics company Tetravaal has created “Scouts”, humanoid robots designed to assist the city’s struggling police force.
But the Scouts’ creator Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) isn’t satisfied; he yearns to unlock robotic potential, something that can reason on its own, even feel emotions. And then he creates it – the eponymous robot that, if not for its outer shell, may as well be called human.
Of course, groundbreaking technology must fall into the wrong hands. Three desperate criminals (two played by the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord) hijack Chappie and train him for their own ends. This gives fellow Tetravaal employee Vincent Moore(Hugh Jackman) a reason to unleash his own abominable robot creation, “Moose” (clearly modeled after Robocop’s ED-209), to take down the rogue robot.
In many ways it’s familiar territory for Blomkamp. His cinematic mission thus far has been finding humanity in the most ungainly of sci-fi atrocities, whether it be the “prawn” aliens in District 9 or cyborg surgeries in Elysium. This time we have the decidedly more appealing Chappie, voiced and acted (through motion capture) by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley. Blomkamp’s affection for his creations shines through, no matter how ridiculous they may appear.
Copley, who hasn’t exactly found rollicking success outside of his projects with Blomkamp, posts a career high as the titular robot. While Chappie’s program ensures it learns at an accelerated rate, he still must start from square one, meaning Copley must continually alter his physicality to approximate rapid aging and maturity. It’s almost worth the price of admission to watch Chappie try to approximate “gangster” swag (well, at least funnier than the horrendously conceived Skids and Mudflap from the Transformers franchise). If Chappie annoys with his repetition (and tendency to speak in the third-person), it might seem familiar to anyone who’s had to raise a child.
Impeccable production design, as well as state-of-the-art visual effects, raise Chappie above its blockbuster forebears. From Chappie himself to Hugh Jackman’s mullet, you stand in awe at the detail on display. And while Blomkamp continues to flounder when it comes to narrative execution, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a directorial approach that combined documentary-style filmmaking with special effects so seamlessly. That Blomkamp continues to do this proves he has some staying power, but he needs to find different channels (and likely better screenwriters) to fully realize his powers.
In spite of the stellar design, Blomkamp hasn’t exactly made this world unique, taking part and parcel from familiar franchises like Robocop. And boy, does he love to blow things up real good. Once we get to the pyrotechnics, the action is incisive, and much more coherent than Elysium‘s shaky-cam nonsense.
Make no mistake, this is pretty dumb stuff. Logic and common sense do not apply to Tetravaal, or the criminals, or really anyone for that matter. Co-written with partner Teri Tatchell (who worked with Blomkamp on District 9 but not Elysium), the screenplay struggles to keep its rules straight while trying to deliver a satisfying action film. Narrative convenience means that safeguards at a robotics company are flimsy enough to be non-existent.
Not to mention Blomkamp’s adoration for the Die Antwoord band members means we spend way too much time with some painfully bad actors. Luckily, Dev Patel serves the part of wide-eyed boy genius well. But it’s Hugh Jackman’s sinister turn which elevates a fairly conventional villain (an ex-military hard-ass) into a surprisingly memorable, if one-dimensional, Blomkamp adversary. Watch how Jackman lights up once he gets the go-ahead to launch his robot. Gone is the faint glimmer of goodness from Jackman’s Wolverine, to say nothing of his musical theater characters.
I can’t say Chappie has enough meat on the bones for repeat viewings, but it’s rather fascinating as a portrait of a director’s gifts and flaws. Here’s a filmmaker who might benefit from a studio project, with enough extra talent on hand to flesh out Blomkamp’s vision. Here’s hoping his addition to the Alien franchise retains the best parts of his filmography—the franchise sorely deserves it.