One of my more consistent rules about movies is, if a director at any point manages to make a movie that tops my end of the year list, I am obligated to give any and all other movies they direct in the future a chance. There’s no guarantee that their next movies will be good, but it’s still a good policy, as it means I’ll be assured a wide variety of interesting movies.
This policy can also doom a movie however, since having previously directed a fantastic movie can give me unreasonably high expectations for their next one. One of the best examples of this is Neil Blomkamp. After District 9 topped my best of the year in 2009, I was extremely excited for Elysium…and was subsequently let down. So I may have made an effort to go into Chappie with…lowered expectations.
The plot takes place in 2016…which seems a little soon given the state of modern robotics, but never mind. In order to combat rising crime rates Johannesburg, South Africa has introduced a robotic police force called Scouts, supplied by Tetravaal and designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Deon however doesn’t just want to design robot cops, he wants to design sentient AI.
After one of the Scouts is badly damaged, Deon decides to install his sentient program into it, but is kidnapped by a pair of low level street criminals Ninja and Yolandi (played…well Ninja and Yolandi, from the South African rap duo, Die Antwoord). Yolandi wants to raise the robot as her child, naming it Chappie, Ninja wants to use it to help pull off a heist while Deon just wants to let it grow and learn naturally, despite only having 5 days to live.
Oh and there’s also a subplot involving another engineer (Hugh Jackman) being jealous of Deon’s success and wanting to put his own robots (which are 2/3rds ED-209 and 1/3rd Gekko) on the market. I normally wouldn’t go out of my way to mention it (for reasons I’ll go into in a moment) but Jackman was getting played up a lot in the marketing, so I figured it would be weird if I didn’t mention it.
In case my plot analysis didn’t make it clear, this is yet another example of the socially conscious sci-fi, in this case it’s primarily concerned with human rights. And that is not anywhere near a bad thing, some of the best sci-fi films of all time explore similar themes, most notably Blomkamp’s own District 9 or less recently Blade Runner (still my favorite movie).
The major difference is that both Blade Runner and District 9 were extremely tightly plotted. All of Blade Runner was devoted to Deckard’s quest to hunt down the Replicants. District 9 had two plots that of Vikus and Christopher Johnson, but they were inextricably intertwined from the end of the first act and kept moving together.
Chappie‘s plot on the other hand is a mess. On the most basic level, it’s made up of three plots: Die Antwoord adopts a robot, Die Antwoord plans a heist and Hugh Jackman does not like Dev Patel. The thing is, these plots are not parallel and don’t fit very well. The best of the three is easily ‘Die Antwoord adopts a robot’; It has the most new ideas and the most interesting story.
The other two don’t do much more than eat up screen time and cut into the main story. The heist planning doesn’t do anything other than set off the main plot and then hang around the edges, adding nothing. Hugh Jackman’s subplot on the other hand is entirely pointless up except for moving stuff around and could have easily been swapped out for an extension on the gangster subplot, or even just letting Chappie’s story evolve more naturally.
These problems are compounded by a weak script and an inconsistent tone. There are multiple segments that are clearly intended to be comedic, but they’re undercut by how serious it is when the plot actually gets rolling or the action kicks in. And not to spoil anything, but given how weak his now two different happy endings are, maybe Blomkamp should just stick to bleak endings, ala District 9.
Several of the characters are heavily underdeveloped (most notably Jackman’s) and the themes are confused. The movie spends a lot of time talking up the AI aspect of it, but it doesn’t dwell on it, spending more time in an extended (and rather on the nose) metaphor for parenthood, until it hits the third act and starts dwelling on the nature of consciousness right out of nowhere.
All of this flitting back and forth between themes, added in with Chappie’s characterization as a growing child and the completely non-existent grip on science and computers, gives the film an almost…childish quality. That could be because of the slightly fanboyish casting of Die Antwoord, but I almost wonder if this movie might have been better cutting the more extreme violence and swearing and trying to make it into a weird kids movie.
The acting is a mixed bag. Chappie is, for the most part, intermittently annoying and endearing, but Shatlto Copley is good in the part, and the capture is extremely impressive. Dev Patel is fine, if a bit cliched (and he disappears from the movie for weirdly long stretches), and Yolandi has an interesting screen presence, this ball of anger and energy embodied by this tiny little woman with a soft voice, but since she’s mostly relegated to the ‘mother figure’ she doesn’t get to use it very often. Oh and Ninja is fine, I guess.
On the negative side is Jackman, whose character is a mush of ticks and character traits that don’t add up to anything. Yolandi and Ninja’s third gang member (played by Jose Cantillo) is so forgettable that I forgot to bring him up before now and just raises questions about why he wasn’t played by DJ Hi-Tek. And while I can completely skip over “Heartless Corporate Leader” (Sigourney Weaver), the “Angry Psychopath” in this one (in this case played by Brandon Auret) is in it too much to ignore and less interesting than David James in District 9 and less entertaining than Copley in Elysium.
If there’s a place the movie comes alive, it’s during the action beats. Blomkamp is still a great action director, and while it feels out of place with the more comedic or childish elements, the violence here is well put together and highly visceral, even if it can’t compete with District 9 on that count. It’s also got a great visual style and impressive effects, so it looks fantastic, if nothing else.
I can’t tell if Chappie is a good step for Neil Blomkamp. He appears to be stuck in something of a rut, as all three of his movies thus far have the same basic skeleton, and increasingly diminishing returns. If he does indeed get to do his Alien film, well that might pull him out of it. As for Chappie, I don’t think I can in good conscience recommend it, at least in theaters. It’s an interesting movie, but too flawed and disjointed to be worth the price of admission.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s trying to figure out if casting a pair of faux-gangster rappers as actual gangsters with the same names is meta or fanfictiony.
– good action and special effects
– okay acting overall
– interesting premise with unique execution
– weak script and inconsistent tone
– giant chunks of the story are pretty useless
– confused metaphors