The troubled Soweto region of Johannesburg is finally getting its crime problem under control thanks to the performance of genius designer Deon’s (Patel) robot police officers – walking, talking APC’s that can go in and do the dirty work no one else wants to do. Deon wants more than just to build combat robots, however, and he gets his chance when an RPG round presents him with a battle-damaged Scout (Copely) that can somehow learn and think and grow like a human can in the bastard love-child of a three-way between “District 9,” “Short Circuit” and “Robocop” that is Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie.” Featuring a lot of what we have come to expect from Blomkamp’s particular take on sci-fi action – in both style and substance – the “District 9” director’s latest epic is high on heart but low on brains, forgetting that you actually need both to make life happen.
He nearly does make it happen largely due to the size of “Chappie’s” heart, which is all down to the titular robot himself. CHAPPIE is a fantastically conceived and executed amalgam of writing (via Blomkamp and co-writer Teri Tatchell), design and execution from his long-time collaborator Sharlto Copely (“Maleficent,” “Powers”). Watching him poke at new objects in suspicion perfectly encapsulates the forgotten terror of how big and different the world is when seen the first time, while following him stealing cars and lecturing their rightful owners to refrain from a life of crime is hilarious.
‘Born’ with a damaged battery which will only give five days of life CHAPPIE quickly runs through all of the different ages of life but never misses a step. Watching CHAPPIE self-realize inside the Hobbesian world of Soweto is both joyful and horrific, particularly his introduction to ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ and the idea that he must get a little red too if he wants to survive.
It’s also utterly realistic as Blomkamp and his team takes his docudrama style of sci-fi to new heights, brought to stunning virtuoso life by Image Engine, expanding on the look Blomkamp created for his short “Tetra Vaal” (on which “Chappie” is based). Combined with cinematographer Trent Opaloch’s (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) verite style camera work and production designer Jules Cook’s (“Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia”) grimy, detailed and realistic world – it’s about as used a used future as you can get – Blomkamp and his fellow craftsmen have created a sci-fi world not of tomorrow but very much of today, filled with graffiti and labeling and PlayStation’s and all the little stuff that makes up life.
And in a lot of cases that would be enough because ultimately life (both real and fictional) is made up of the little things. But the reality is the big things matter too and that’s generally where “Chappie” falls down.
If you’ve noticed that, outside of CHAPPIE himself, most of the praise for the film goes to the technical aspects, that’s not an oversight. Extraordinarily human CHAPPIE may be, but he is not matched by the rest of the characters who are frequently more robotic in their design and use than he ever was. That comes down primarily to rappers-turned-actors Ninja and Yolandi (playing basically themselves, or at least their stage characters), who kidnap Deon and his creation to help them steal the money they need to pay off a rival gang boss and save their lives and becoming CHAPPIE’s adoptive parents in the process.
They are among the most loathsome people in the film – contributing more to the soundtrack than to the story – particularly Ninja whose ‘antics’ include leaving CHAPPIE out in the wild to be bludgeoned and set on fire in order to teach him a lesson about how cruel the world is, and to get him to agree to attack people with knives because they just ‘put people to sleep.’ The idea is that Ninja will learn something about his own innate humanity when confronted with just how bad a person he has been to his ‘son’ but it doesn’t work. The scale is tipped too heavily on the jerk side, in part because of Blomkamp’s apparent love of rolling around in the grime of the world.
But Ninja’s a masterpiece compared with Jackman’s Vincent, a rival engineer intending to shut all the robot cops down, creating an artificial riot and giving him an excuse to roll out his over armored, over armed combat robot and show what it can do. Vincent is just a waste of screen talent, over bearing and overdone from his mullet to the pistol that never leaves his side, even in his cubicle.
A representative of the military-industrial class, one of Blomkamp’s favorite targets, Vincent has no idea how crazy he is or how his actions are entirely driven by his bloodlust. Which would be fine except that “Chappie” is so over the top on the subject that not only doesn’t Vince understand why the police laugh it him for trying to sell them a mobile weapons platform, he doesn’t even realize how weird it is for him to walk around his office with a pistol on his hip that he can (and does) threaten his co-workers with. And neither does anyone else.
Blomkamp has made enough films now for some of his favorite themes to become apparent and Vincent is the walking embodiment of one of them – the way police forces focused on certain groups keeps the vicious cycle of poverty and crime turning – which is fine in and of itself. CHAPPIE is very much in the same boat – representing Blomkamp’s idea of humanity transforming itself into something non-human in order to understand what humanity really is – but it works because he exists as character separate and apart from what he represents as a theme and no one else does.
When “District 9” came out it seemed like it was heralding a bold new voice in sci-fi, willing to use the genre to comment directly on the social issues of now rather than through far removed analogy and doing so under the patina of the action film and solid storytelling so that we wouldn’t notice the social message pill until it had gone down. He started with racism and its broader umbrella of prejudice and its direct connection to poverty, a difficult subject handled well and leaving many to wonder what area he would tackle next.
But the more films Blomkamp makes the more it seems that he has nothing else to say.
Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman