Innovation and cleverness are something that should always be rewarded. That could take the form of creating and developing a new idea, presenting a known idea from a new or unique perspective, or taking a regularly recognized idea and pursuing it to new heights. Neill Blomkamp took us to new and interesting heights with his galactic, Earth-based film District 9, and slowly began his descent from paradise in Elysium only to wind up in this new low, slum-like Chappie.
In an increasingly violent society, South Africa is the first place to implement a fully robotic police force known as Scouts. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), creator of the Scouts, is looking for a greater form of consciousness for his creations. He wants them to have the ability to think, reason, and feel for themselves. Their company head Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) thinks that robot sentience would be disastrous for the human race, so she refuses his request to experiment on a robot to put his new program to the test. Chappie (Sharlto Copley) comes into creation through Deon’s theft of a defective droid whose programming he altered. With the help of criminals like Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), Deon is able to teach the childlike Chappie in secret. Deon’s robotic rival, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), finds out Deon’s extracurricular activities and plans to derail him and the entire Scouts program so his bulky creation can take center stage. Meanwhile, Ninja and Yolandi, who Chappie lovingly calls Mommy and Daddy, use Chappie to commit a series of crimes to help pay for their debt from crime boss who will kill them in less than a week if they don’t come through. Chappie’s crime get noticed and a panic rises after Vincent shuts down all Scouts. This repressed city is ready to explode, and Chappie becomes public enemy number one. With a limited time to live, he has to fight for his right to survive and exist.
Anyone can make a comeback. We all have slumps and sometimes it may take one, two, sometimes three times to hit your stride again. Neill Blomkamp piqued our interest with District 9, but has since been in an alarmingly downward spiral. The clear vision and innovation we once were promised early on has begun to turn into a murky, muddled mess riddled with cliches and character tropes. Chappie‘s greatest weakness is in the weak narrative structure and undeveloped, unoriginal story. This film, like District 9, was co-written by Neil Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, which may add to the speculation that they accidentally struck gold with their first film. Personally, I think it may still be too early to tell whether or not Blomkamp will join the ranks of the one-hit wonders. I’ll reserve judgement until I see how he handles the Alien universe. Maybe extraterrestrials are more in his wheelhouse.
The sentient robot angle has been done before, and Chappie doesn’t offer anything new to the add to the mythos. We get the same predictable turns and hollow reasoning as other movies loosely based on machines, like Transformers. Even though Chappie’s pleasant demeanor and often times hilarious naivete may give the illusion of emotional depth, it is actually a bold-faced facade hiding how sentimentally forced every scene comes off in an attempt to get you to feel anything at all. Each character comes off as an unintentional comical caricature that would be better suited to the comedy genre. If it took itself any less serious, this would be an ultra-violent, South African version of the film Short Circuit.
The film’s strengths, which it has shockingly few of, are all in it’s visual style and how it is naturally blended into the futuristic South African landscape. This is not the first time Blomkamp (or any other director) has done this, so while it is worth noting, it’s also nothing new. The eye-popping color palette, mainly for the Die Antwoord crew, helped aggrandize the otherwise grey-ish color scheme of the film. Die Antwoord’s music being soundtracked throughout the film also seemed to be a good fit, and work well with the scenes. Unfortunately, the band members themselves seemed out of place and miscast. Their characters and portrayal might work on a meta level, since they are actual South Africans, but on any other level it is a complete bust. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only misused cast members since every single talented actor/actress (save for maybe Chappie’s voice actor) was not given a well-developed enough character for them to actually apply their true talents on.
Chappie‘s base programming is that of a rudimentary artificial intelligence film. At it’s core, it tries to show off it’s self-awareness, but ultimately comes off as unintelligent and uninspired. Blomkamp has come a long way, with his writing and directorial skills beginning to come into question. If we apply the same rules of baseball to filmmakers, after this latest, disastrous strike, he has one more chance to win the game. Let’s hope the the Alien franchise, and the huge fandom it inspires will be much more forgiving.
RATING: ★★★(3/10 stars)