‘District 9’ was an explosive announcement of new directorial voice, but now, two movies later, Neill Blomkamp is still struggling to top or even match it. The verdict has yet to drop as to whether he’s a one-hit wonder, but at least ‘Chappie’, his remixed vision of similar elements, is unlike anything else competing in the blockbuster arena at the moment. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing in this case, but at least it’s a thing.
The film takes place in a futuristic South Africa that, much like ‘District 9’, is the same as contemporary South Africa with one sci-fi twist. This time, there are a collection of drone RoboCops… sorry, robot cops… that march the streets and help keep the peace. Dev Patel plays Deon, the scientist who created the machines and also just had a breakthrough inventing artificial intelligence that he wants to test out. Unfortunately, his stuffy boss (Sigourney Weaver) has no interest in that breakthrough, so Deon is forced to steal a robot to give consciousness.
As soon as he does, he’s kidnapped by a pair of street thugs (South African rappers Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord, who also fill the soundtrack with their songs and wear their own merch just in case you haven’t heard of them). They want to keep the robot for themselves to pull off a heist. The robot is quickly named Chappie and soon develops a charmingly childish personality that Deon wants to turn into an artist but Ninja wants to turn into a gang member. Further complicating things is the presence of a mullet-sporting Hugh Jackman as Deon’s army competition. He wants to destroy the RoboCop program to launch his own human-controlled killing machine that looks strikingly like the ED209. Naturally, that means the film races towards a climax that’s both about the nature of consciousness and filled with machine gun action scenes where things go boom.
First, the good news, and there’s plenty of it. Chappie himself is a remarkable creation, both in terms of Sharlto Copley’s wonderful motion-capture performance (which is particularly touching in the earliest infantile sequences) and the stunning CGI wizardry. Blompkamp has been one of the best practitioners of digital effects since his commercial days, and ‘Chappie’ shows that he’s lost none of those skills. The lead robot seamlessly mixes with the human actors, and the action set-pieces near the finale offer some applause-worthy visceral entertainment.
Blompkamp’s interest in mixing thoughtful sci-fi with genre action also hasn’t waned. He intriguingly toys with notions of A.I. consciousness between rounds of gunfire. Like ‘District 9’, the movie mixes concepts to mull over without easy answers, along with plenty of sleazy fun. Blompkamp also has a blast giving audiences tonal whiplash, nimbly jumping from action to comedy to thought experiments and drama. He even packs an unexpected emotional punch with a movie that wants to find a halfway point between ‘RoboCop’ and ‘E.T.’, and then sets it within a specifically South African gangster milieu. There’s a lot going on in ‘Chappie’ and it’s hard not to admire the ambition of the production.
Now the bad news. There’s far too much going on in ‘Chappie’ for one movie to contain. At its best, the film hits ‘RoboCop’/’E.T.’ peaks, but at its worst it feels more like the ‘RoboCop’ remake meets ‘Short Circuit 2′. As amusing as it can be to watch Blomkamp attempt to mix together three or four different movies at once, it’s often incredibly frustrating and you’ll wish he’d made just one movie instead.
His desire to keep the narrative racing forward at all times also leads to plenty of plot holes, logic leaps and cloying sentimentality. While it’s amusing stunt-casting to sneak Die Antwoord into a Hollywood production, the rawness of the non-actors’ performances is awkwardly stilted as often as it is unpredictably unmannered. Worst of all, just like his last movie ‘Elysium’, there’s a sense that Blomkamp bit off more than he could chew with ‘Chappie’. He probably could have used a little more time ironing out the script and deciding what he actually wanted to say before rushing into production.
Still, if I had the choice between watching a movie that fails because it’s completely lacking in content or ambition (like a ‘Transformers’ sequel) or a movie that doesn’t quite hold together because it just has too much going on, I’ll take the latter every time. From the first frame to the last, there’s no question that the project sprung from Blompkamp’s very specific imagination, even if he wasn’t always sure what to do with all of his ideas. It’s both an action flick unafraid to revel in R-rated naughtiness and a sweet little sci-fi movie willing to show a scientist earnestly teach a robot how to paint. That’s a nutty concoction and certainly not one that will appeal to everyone, but at least it’s a distinct vision that hits some original high notes in between the ones that play off-key.
Blompkamp hopefully has another film as strong as ‘District 9’ in him, but even if that movie never materializes, at least his failed attempts will swing wildly for the fences and feel like nothing else. I say bring on his ‘Alien’ sequel. Good or bad, it’ll shake up a franchise that’s in need of a good shake.