Still Learning, by Rudie Obias
With District 9 in 2009, director Neill Blomkamp was launched into cinematic stardom as an emerging voice in Hollywood. In 2013, he released Elysium, another science fiction allegory about the haves and have-nots in the future, which paled in quality to his debut feature. Sadly, the streak continues, as Blomkamp’s latest genre film, Chappie, is just another lukewarm entry into his filmography.
Chappie opens in Johannesburg, South Africa in the not too distant future. Crime and chaos has engulfed the city, and its only course of action is to implement a legion of robots called Scouts to serve and protect the African city. Engineer Dion Wilson (Dev Patel) invented the Scouts for a weapons manufacturing company in Johannesburg, who works with the local police force, while Wilson’s rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) – a former soldier and now an engineer – is working on his own super-powered robot, called The Moose, to help the police as well. Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is the CEO of the weapons manufacturers and doesn’t think The Moose is ready for real-world policing…yet.
Wilson is also working on a new robotics program that gives the Scouts artificial intelligence and a robotic soul, and, of course, the CEO forbids him to continue his experiments because of…reasons? Much like why she doesn’t want him to continue to improve his life’s work after he’s the sole reason why her company is successful, the movie Chappie is confused, unclear, and paper thin when it comes to its themes, characters, and overall story.
Once Blomkamp sets up the world (his strongest trait), Chappie quickly loses focus. A crime lord demands that two of his underlings (played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er of the South African rap duo Die Antwoord as heightened versions of themselves) to pay him back for drugs that they lost, so they get the idea to kidnap Wilson to turn off all the Scouts in the city, which they abandon pretty quickly. Once they kidnap him, he brings them his experiment to make the Scouts sentient instead. They then teach the self-aware, infant-like Scout, whom they name Chappie, to steal cars and help them get the $20 million they owe the crime lord. All the while, Dion Wilson, whom Chappie (Sharlto Copley) calls his creator, teaches the robot that killing and stealing isn’t the right thing to do, that creativity is more important. In this way, Chappie is like RoboCop mixed with Short Circuit, but in a very bad way. In fact, The Moose, the evil robot in the movie, resembles ED-209 in RoboCop, while Chappie, himself, acts like Johnny Five in Short Circuit.
Chappie is a very, very dense movie, packed full of characters, side-quests, mini-missions, and a convoluted story that feels like it belongs in a video game than a movie. It suffers from the “if A, then B” brand of storytelling that plagues a few blockbuster movies, most notably The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s the idea that a character has to accomplish one mission to go to the next and then has to accomplish another mission to get to the next, and so on, and so on, much like you’ll find in any long-form video game. While this is great for video games or even some movies, it doesn’t work for Chappie because Neill Blomkamp has an inability to make his characters relatable or convey a complex story that is clear to an audience. Since we can’t relate to any of the characters in Chappie, the movie’s flaws are more pronounced where nothing seems to work.
Instead, Chappie gives an audience a few thrills with very impressive special effects and film score, but not much else. Its social gaze to the world is unclear. Is this movie about the militarization of a local police force? It’s a movie that tells its main character that killing is not the answer, while taking pleasure in all of its on-screen violence with super-stylized slow motion to emphasize gun play and action. It’s also a movie that seems to say that a human police force would be more effective than a robotic one, while it replaces human characters with robots on a whim. Characters only really make decisions because the script told them to. Scenes really don’t build upon themselves, rather only seem to distract you with nonsense action scenes that do not inform an audience on a character’s motives.
Chappie is a hot mess that has spurts of personality, such as Die Antwoord, who are masters of self-promotion. It’s a science fiction allegory that seems more impressed with introducing heavy ideas rather than exploring them, while delivering lightweight characters who are only there to serve the film’s plot. Much like the self-aware robot, Neill Blomkamp has a lot to learn about how to make a good genre movie. He’s also dangerously close to becoming the next M. Night Shyamalan, if he’s not careful with his next film. It seems like he should go smaller next time.