Starring: Sharlto Copley (District 9), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Contilla (Crank), Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens)
Director: Neill Blomkamp (Elysium)
Writers: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell (District 9)
Runtime: 2 hours
Release Date: 6 March (US, UK)
When District 9 hit the scene in 2009, Neill Blomkamp was suddenly hailed as “the next big thing”, and I was among those people heralding the film and its director as exactly what science-fiction cinema needed. In retrospect, that hyperbolic attitude seems a little childish now. Whilst I did enjoy Blomkamp’s sophomore effort Elysium, it paled in comparison to its predecessor (especially when the tone, message and aesthetic of both pictures are so similar). The mild letdown of Elysium has even led to Blomkamp recently admitting he felt the film was made prematurely made and without enough thought. A brave thing for any director to do, but perhaps he should have saved his apology, because his new film Chappie is an even bigger step down for the promising director.
Chappie’s plot could easily be summed up as a reverse-RoboCop: instead of a human becoming robotic, it’s a robot that learns to be human. However, the comparisons to the Paul Verhoeven classic don’t end there, with several scenes and characters feeling directly ripped from it with little change. A city overrun by crime, a corporation gaining control over law enforcement, a bitter employee trying to push his inferior product, and many others are elements shared by both pictures. Blomkamp is certainly known for paying homage to other sci-fi films, but he’s very much stepped over the line into blatant now. But putting those obvious similarities aside, there are a lot of good ideas under the surface of Chappie. Topics such free will, nature vs. nurture and transhumanism are certainly interesting areas to explore, but the film either glosses over them too quickly or tackles them in morally questionable ways. This is especially true of the film’s third act, which I personally think was interesting direction to go, but it’s way too heavily foreshadowed and is then quickly rushed through to an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. But I think the main reason Chappie ends up faltering is not so much in the story it’s trying to tell, but in the characters that inhabit it.
I’ll get the exception to this out of the way first: Sharlto Copley as Chappie himself does a great job. There’s such a warm naivety and endearing nature to Copley’s performance, made clear in even the slightest change in posture or hand gesture. His voice can be a little grading at first, as can his childish attitude, but you quickly warm to the character and Copley manages to gain the most (and possibly only) sympathy of any character in the film. Dev Patel’s Deon is the only other character that comes close to being relatable, but he’s far too weak and pernickety; he only ever once gains the high ground in a scene, and he has to resort to using a gun to do so. Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, members of South African rap group Die Antwoord, ostensibly play themselves here (and if the fact their character’s names are their own isn’t enough, the film is full of their music and they often even wear their own merchandise), and their inclusion is just baffling. Ignoring the fact that Ninja is just an outright bad actor (Visser is passable at best), their characters are irredeemable and vulgar. I get the idea of the childish Chappie being easily swayed into malicious deeds by them and learning a lesson about morality from it, but it takes up a huge portion of the movie and fails in that time to establish any redeeming qualities about these characters; by the time sh*t hits the fan, I was actively rooting for Ninja to die. Faring even worse is Hugh Jackman, whose stock villain is so lacking in motivation that it kills the otherwise serious tone of the picture. Seriously, why is this guy so dead set on getting his death machine of a contraption on the streets despite the obvious flaws in logic that even the movie points out to him? Why is he going to such ridiculous lengths to do so, endangering the lives of countless innocents in the process? Why is he taking so much glee in the rampant destruction he’s responsible for in the third act? And why doesn’t Sigourney Weaver just fire him? Oh yeah, Sigourney Weaver’s in this movie. I had totally forgotten, and you probably will too because she’s essentially pointless.
Even in all of this mess, at least Blomkamp’s skills as a visual director have not deteriorated…much. Despite having a very similar look to both his previous films, Chappie remains a visually compelling film through strong production design and flawless visual effects. The design and animation job on Chappie synchs perfectly with the live action environments, and combine with Copley’s performance beautifully. However, Blomkamp’s need to constantly pay reverence to his influences butts in here too; whilst Chappie’s bearing likeness to the robot from Appleseed is somewhat subtle, the resemblance between Jackman’s MOOSE robot and ED-209 from RoboCop is so blatant that it’s all you’ll think about when you see it. Hans Zimmer’s score is decent but feels lost under the noise of the constant Die Antwoord songs used throughout which, and I know this is just my musical taste, sound overly produced and just downright annoying. But it’s not just our stars’ products being constantly shoved in our face, as distributor Sony once again feels the need to shove their various products in our face with numerous Sony phones, laptops and PlayStation 4s seen constantly throughout. Sony has been especially guilty of product placement lately (see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for the most egregious example of this) and they really need to stop being so obvious with it.
Chappie isn’t outright bad, but it is heart-wrenchingly disappointing. The film has plenty of potential with its themes and ideas, but other than its titular character there is no one participating in this story to care about. The morals the film espouses are questionable to say the least, and the similarities to other pieces of sci-fi fiction are Oblivion-level obvious. I said in my review of Elysium that I feared Neill Blomkamp might become the new Andrew Niccol. He’s certainly on that path now, and he’d better make sure that new Alien film he’s making is good or he’ll be stepping on M. Night Shyamalan’s turf pretty soon.
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10