Having stunned with his debut District 9, Chappie director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore film Elysium had grand ideas but a difficult narrative thread. So for his robot-come-to-life latest Chappie it makes sense for Blomkamp to return to the country of District 9’s success in his immediate future visualization of Johannesburg, or Jo-Berg as it’s aggressively referred to. But does Chappie breathe new life into Blomkamp’s unique brand of sci-fi or does it short circuit?
In the crime-ridden streets of Jo-Berg the police force have turned to ruthlessly efficient robots to bring the criminals to justice. But their creator Deon (Dev Patel) wants to take things further and creates an artificially intelligent version called Chappie (Sharlto Copley). When Deon and Chappie fall into the hands of a criminal gang led by the violent Ninja and maternal Yolandi (of South African rap group fame Die Antwood) Chappie’s upbringing takes a turn for the gangster. Meanwhile rival robo-designer Vincent (played with mullet sporting gusto by Hugh Jackman) wants his heavy metal creation Moose to police the streets and will leverage Chappie’s creation against Deon.
There is no doubt that Blomkamp is a director of staggering vision. With the recent news that he would bring a new Alien film to life meeting resounding euphoria he is akin to original Alien and Aliens directors Ridley Scott and James Cameron in being able to build, sculpt and then transport you to world’s completely realised and fully functional. Chappie is no exception, for anyone who has seen Blomkamp’s short film Tetra Vaal (which you can see below), upon which Chappie is heavily based, he is a filmmaker who takes the run-down, decaying visuals of his native South Africa and brings them to kicking and screaming life.
Chappie even shares District 9’s opening expositional mechanic of introducing us to this world via media news stories and talking heads. And it works. But there are two things working against Chappie and they loom large from the same ‘80s era that Chappie’s favourite cartoon He-Man comes from. They are Robocop and Short Circuit, or more specifically Short Circuit 2. Because with the media and robotic police, not to mention Moose bearing an uncanny resemblance to Robocop’s ED-209, you’re often left reminiscing about Paul Verhoeven’s satirical classic. Throw in Chappie’s childlike demeanor, his determination to come to grips with what it means to be ‘alive’ and the fact he then helps a criminal execute a robbery – Number Johnny 5 did the same in Short Circuit 2 – and you’re left wondering if one of Hollywood’s current crop of genuinely original filmmakers might be running out of ideas.
But for the most part, when the tone is not disjointed and the gangland isn’t grating, Chappie has moments of enjoyment. Blomkamp keeps the action ticking along nicely, the set-pieces, specifically the climax, are dazzling and surprisingly visceral given that at first Chappie feels like it should be perhaps aimed at a younger audience. Indeed Blomkamp has ideas pouring out of every twist and turn, so much so you wonder if he may have overburdened himself with trying to execute them all. The climax is straight out of the District 9 school of thinking; leave it open for a sequel, Chappie becoming more than just the naïve machine and something that when he really springs into action you can truly root for.
Dev Patel is warm and vulnerable as Chappie’s creator. If anything you’d like to follow his narrative more than the gangsters Chappie falls in with but perhaps that thread of creator and machine becoming friends has been done too many times. Patel’s Deon is the emotional core to the film, the one always trying to do the right thing and in the end not always getting it right. Die Antwood’s Ninja is never quite given enough heart until too late for him to be anything other than a character who is hard to like. Yolandi Visser on the other hand brings an elfish affection that demonstrates she may have an acting career worth pursuing. Copley’s portrayal as Chappie leaves a lot to be desired. The visual effects are stunning but with Copley lending too much of a cartoonish edge rather than humanity to Chappie you often find him irritating rather than affecting.
Too many narrative missteps and an uneven tone do not do enough to completely derail Blomkamp’s vision and as such Chappie feels like software that needed a little more beta-testing before it was ready to go to mass production.