Neill Blomkamp’s roots as a visual effects artist have always been clear in his directorial work. His aliens and robots have a distinct fluidity, and his dusty aesthetic complements the dangerous, criminal atmosphere that pervades each film. In Chappie, however, the inclination towards visuals is a curse. The film gives the impression that Blomkamp was really excited about bringing a conscious, intelligent robot to life, but struggled to put together a story to back it up. It’s a shame; the premise is so enticing, but the execution is lacking.
Chappie himself is delightful. A high-powered artificial intelligence created by engineer Deon (Dev Patel), based on the android police force in a near future Johannesburg, he is kidnapped by a group of gangsters (Yolandi and Ninja, of Die Antwoord fame) and a battle ensues between ‘maker’ and ‘mummy and daddy’.
Should Chappie should use his potential to write poetry, paint and obey the laws or help the criminals in their carjacking and heists?
Meanwhile, despite constant rejection from his CEO (Sigourney Weaver), engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) contrives to up the value of his own robots – the human-controlled, heavily weaponised Moose – by sabotaging Deon’s reliable ‘scouts’.
The film is at its best when Chappie himself is learning and growing. He begins with a childlike intelligence, with no vocabulary or understanding of the world, and his education is a source of both hilarity and poignancy. Regular Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley provides the voice and motion-capture for the robot, and excels in conveying his timid naivety, his glee and his terror. Watching the robot struggle through a lesson on a makeshift shooting range, or imitate his teachers with a swaggering walk and a slang-ridden exclamation, is a joy. The problem is that the rest of the film doesn’t back this up.
For a start, whenever Yolandi and Ninja are on screen, it feels like the ultimate product placement. I didn’t know who Die Antwoord were before, but I certainly do now. And I hope they stick to their music. Both give incredibly distracting performances, and feel out of place alongside Jackman and Weaver. That said, the latter hardly gives an acting masterclass, with Weaver in a thankless role, and Jackman going for all out villainy from the outset, offering very little in terms of character depth or development. Only Patel, as an almost ‘everyman’ scientist, does himself justice, and it is his love for Chappie that forms the (admittedly flimsy) emotional core of the film. If more time had been spent on Deon and Chappie, and less on Yolandi and Ninja, Chappie might have been more compelling and less indulgent.
There have been many ‘artificial intelligence’ films before Chappie, and Blomkamp at least does enough to stick out from the crowd. Not content with the familiar theme of personhood, he delves deeper, exploring ideas of mortality and consciousness.
Chappie is a robot with an expiry date – he is told that his metal body makes him invincible, but his irreplaceable battery is running low.
Chappie’s acknowledgement of this is a message for all of us: if we know that we are going to die, how will that shape our life choices? Yet Blomkamp slips and slides through these ideas and never really grasps them properly. Instead we get guns and knives and explosions. The action spectacle is handled well – there are some moments of particularly grisly violence – but it arrives in place of the thematic potential that the film only grazes.
What is worse, however, is the cheesiness into which Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell descend. Whether it is a needless moment of self-sacrifice, a convenient, barely palatable resolution or an overly-dramatic, bellowed ‘No!’, the screenplay flounders and leans on the most familiar clichés. Jackman’s character only exists to spark the disaster that inspires the overreaching finale, and distracts from Chappie himself. The core idea is good, but there is nothing to help sustain it.
Ambition is the weapon of the visionary, but here it is Blomkamp’s greatest weakness. He has control over the visuals, but the story quickly runs away from him, pushing the sci-fi beyond its logical limits. His previous films – District 9 and Elysium – were filled, almost overbearingly so, with social commentary. Here, Blomkamp takes a different approach, adding ethics and philosophy of mind to his arsenal. But it is all too much. Watch Chappie for the spectacle and the fun, and you should have a decent two hours, but if you stop and think too much, it will start to unravel.