Published Mar 06, 2015Trailers for District 9 director Neill Blomkamp's latest moralizing sci-fi epic, Chappie, told two very different stories. The first painted the film as a heartwarming love story between a sentient robot and a crew of lost boys (and girl), a kind of E.T. meets Short Circuit. The other sold it as a dystopic shoot 'em up, in which Chappie comes off as a 21st Century Robocop out to vanquish Hugh Jackman's mullet.
In practice, the film is a not-so-subtle mix of both. Chappie is one of many autonomous police scout robots used by Johannesburg police. Designed by Deon Wilson (played by Dev Patel), they superseded a human-controlled robot (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Robocop's ED-209) designed by ex-soldier Vincent Moore. Both men work for Tetra Vaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, in some serious stunt casting); Moore hates Wilson for sidelining his creation, while Wilson begrudges Bradley for not letting him install an artificial intelligence program into the scouts, driving both men to the edge.
Wilson is kidnapped by a crew of gangsters led by Ninja and Yolandi, (best known as the most visible members of South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord) who want Wilson to program a scout that will help them steal cars and rob armoured cars. Instead, Wilson installs his AI program, producing an infantile scout (voiced by District 9's Shartlo Copley) with a remarkably quick learning curve. Meanwhile Moore, suspicious of Wilson, sets out to smear him and his creation, leading to the film's explosive (unfortunately, only literally) final third.
Over three films, Blomkamp has proven adept at telling high-minded, character-driven sci-fi as well as blockbuster spectacle; his weakness is weaving the two together. The box that he works in (see the films referenced off the top) is all-too familiar to audiences, but Blomkamp deftly surrounds clichéd plot points with a unique setting and visual flair. Copley's motion-capture robot is seamless and endlessly endearing; I could watch a whole film of his interactions with Ninja and Yolandi, who are surprising standouts. Jackman, sporting haircut that makes Wolverine's blow-out 'do look hip, does his best playing a villain who is at best a MacGuffin for the film's big shootout. Patel is the real weak link; Deon is as gratingly earnest and flat as Patel's Newsroom character, Neal Sampat.
For all of the emotional and visual spectacle, Chappie is a movie about ego. Ninja wants an indestructible partner in crime; Wilson sees Chappie as a creative foil for himself; Moore wants his robot to take the spotlight; and Bradley just wants to please investors. Only Yolandi, the film's muddled heart, is willing to let the robot grow into whatever it wants to be. Yet the film's ending proves to be particularly incongruous with these character arcs.
The film's biggest issue, though, is one of tone; as Chappie learns and grows, he's become manipulated by the people around him. Ninja wants him to be a gangster, leading to some of the movie's silliest scenes, which stick out against the movie's earnest first half and violent ending. The shift is jarring and out of step with what's come before and what will come after.
Chappie is a much better film than Elysium, Blomkamp's failed sophomore effort that even he now admits he "fucked up," and taken individually, there are some fantastic scenes stitched together into an entertaining Frankenstein of a movie. But it could have been so much more than that. Blomkamp still can't reconcile his desire to tell small stories with big budgets. That could be a function of today's film market — studios seem to believe that if you're going to spend nine figures on a movie, something has to blow up in a pretty spectacular fashion — but it would be nice to see a filmmaker with Blomkamp's skills and relative clout prove them wrong. Unfortunately, this isn't that film.