In 2009, I walked into my local theater to see a little movie called District 9, knowing very little about it and expecting very little from it. The only reason I wanted to see it was because it was produced by Peter Jackson, my favorite director at the time. Little did I know that District 9 would turn out to be one of the greatest films I have ever had the pleasure of watching. I knew the second the credits rolled that the co-writer director of the movie, Neill Blomkamp, would be a filmmaker to watch out for, who was capable of making amazing films that would be about important topics. Unfortunately, his second effort, Elysium, failed to live up to the heights of his first film. Now, he returns with his third film, Chappie (based on his own short film Tetra Vaal), which sadly continues his career’s slow downwards spiral and is so inconsistent in its quality that I found myself both loving and hating it at various intervals throughout its two hour runtime.
The movie presents us with a near future version of Johannesburg South Africa where a robotic police force has been created in order to stop human police corruption and brutality. These robots (called Scouts) are a huge success and their creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) wants to further their capabilities by developing a fully sentient robot who can think like any normal human. Opposed to this idea is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), an ex-soldier who wants his own human controlled mechanical law enforcement invention to replace the Scouts. Just as Wilson is about to activate the prototype for his sentient robot, he is captured by two gangsters, Ninja and Yolandi (fictionalised versions of the real life South African rap and hip hop duo Die Antwoord) who use the robot, newly named Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley), to further their criminal goals. What follows is a narrative centered on the inner struggle of Chappie as he must decide whether to succumb to his adoptive parents’ criminal influence or keep his promise to his maker that he would not commit a crime or hurt anyone, all while being chased down by the ruthless and sadistic Moore.
Chappie’s big draw is the world that Blomkamp presents to us. He has a gift for designing a future that looks very realistic, mostly because it’s dirty and imperfect. This isn’t your ideal pristine futuristic society, far from it. The robots themselves are all pretty rusty looking and layered with dirt and grime that adds to the feeling of authenticity. Unfortunately, there is very little in this world that separates it from District 9, and that was the major flaw of the film to me. It’s as if Blomkamp felt he should stick with much of the same features that made District 9 so memorable, evenif feel all too familiar in Chappie. The similarities are numerous and blatant: both feature a protagonist that is alienated from society, both include an action sequence involving a mech suit and both are bookended by fictional news and documentary footage that feed the viewer exposition. When Chappie started, I almost thought that I was watching Disrict 9, only replacing aliens with robots.
The film has a lot on its mind, so much that it can’t stay on one topic for very long before jumping to the next. Themes such as police brutality, the dangers and potential benefits of artificial intelligence and the flawed nature of humanity are all very interesting topics that could make great films by themselves. But instead of exploring one of these in depth, Blomkamp chooses to only lightly touch on them, offering very little new to the conversation. There were certain times during the film where I genuinely felt for Chappie and his struggles, but there were also moments where I thought he was one of the most annoying characters I have seen on screen in a long time. One moment in particular that had me frustrated is a scene where Chappie is faced with the harsh and violent reality of the decisions he has unwittingly made, and just when I thought we were finally going to delve into some serious thematic weight, Chappie is pulled into another shootout and all is forgotten. Adding to the film’s melting pot of ideas are the the concluding minutes, which introduce yet another huge plot element that could itself be an entire movie plot, but is only used here as a rushed deus ex machina.
Sharlto Copley does an amazing job both providing the voice and motion captured movement for Chappie. The special effects are also top notch and make Chappie look realistic and fluid, there was never a moment where I didn’t believe that what I was seeing was an actual thinking robot. Chappie is such a lively and well constructed character, that it’s the humans in the film who are the ones delivering the robotic performances. Hugh Jackman is given absolutely nothing to do here besides being a typical villain, with no effort being put into developing his character beyond that. Even Sigourney Weaver (who has a small role) is relegated to sitting in an office and delivering bad dialogue, her character is forgotten for a good chunk of the film and and is ultimately useless to the plot. But it’s the inexplicable inclusion of Die Antwoord that had me most frustrated, mostly because their songs are needlessly crow bared into montages and don’t fit with Hans Zimmer’s otherwise great score. Yolandi Visser does a good job and is greatly helped by the fact that her character is amongst the film’s most likeable humans (acting as a motherly figure to Chappie), but Ninja is such a detestable scumbag of a human being that the movie loses any momentum it has accumulated as soon as he comes on screen.
I love District 9 and do truly believe that Neil Blomkamp still has it in him to make genuinely interesting and meaningful movies. I would still recommend that anyone who has enjoyed his previous films should at least try to watch Chappie because there are many enjoyable parts to it and even some moments of brilliance. Still, Chappie is a big step back for Blomkamp and I hope that he will try and do something different with his upcoming sequel to the Alien franchise. I want him to be the great director I know he can be. Until then, I’ll just keep rewatching District 9 and leave Chappie on the shelf.
featured image from movie.mthai
Final Grade 6/10
Chappie is Now Playing In Theaters