Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell / Directed by Neill Blomkamp / Starring Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sharlto Copley and Sigourney Weaver
Chappie: Don’t laugh, I’m being cool.
When it comes to crafting life-like CG images and merging them in lived-in, real-world environments, DISTRICT 9 director Neill Blomkamp is completely and utterly unmatched in the industry. When you consider the budgets he works with it’s straight up confounding that he isn’t the visual effects man working on every major blockbuster released every year. That being said, a strong visionary does not a strong storyteller make. Blomkamp may have a firm grasp on technology, but it’s not the technology that connects with people – it’s the humanity, and if ELYSIUM and his latest film, CHAPPIE, are any indication, Blomkamp has spent far more time trying to render stylish photographs than he has interacting with real people.
Set – once again – in the not-so-distant Johannesburg, South Africa, where a robotic police force has already been successfully implemented and reduced crime, CHAPPIE picks up just as the engineer behind those robot officers known as Scouts, Deon (Dev Patel) has made a breakthrough. A way to provide his robotic friends with consciousness – to think, to feel, to make or even criticize art. Obviously the big ol’ meanie CEO (Sigourney Weaver, looking perpetually bored) doesn’t bite, understanding that a robot police force that appreciates art isn’t all that stellar for business. But once Deon takes a glance at a motivational cat poster he decides he’s going to go through with his experiment anyway, taking a severely damaged Scout and injecting it with thoughts and feeling, thus creating Chappie and upsetting his gun-waving coworker Vincent (an incredibly miscast Hugh Jackman), who dresses and acts like a psychopathic catholic high school gym teacher.
I used to think DISTRICT 9 was the visually-stunning, unique yet flawed, sci-fi kick we all needed in 2009, but watching Blomkamp’s follow-ups it’s far easier to see through the façade of “cool” images, and see the boring, half-baked social commentary, the straight-faced tonal and thematic inconsistencies, and the childish final act where every semblance of an idea gets tossed in the trash in favor of mindless, juvenile ultra-violence that carries its way through every one of his projects. If ELYSIUM didn’t confirm that Blomkamp’s films are beautifully-realized junk, CHAPPIE sure as hell will because Chappie may be conscious, and he may even be alive, but his movie is an absolutely dreadful, derivative piece of crap that no amount of bad marketing could have prepared us for.
CHAPPIE is, at its most basic, every bad element in a Blomkamp film amplified to its extreme. On top of being schizophrenic, inept and cloyingly maudlin, it is also dumb, loud and meaningless. Oh, there’s a false semblance of themes – I’m sure if you ask Blomkamp he’d tell you it’s about life, man, or the nature of humanity or a billion of the other derivative themes he mistakes as innovation – but none of it matters because none of the painfully retread territory is followed through on. The film is a weird combination of ROBOCOP, BLADE RUNNER and SHORT CIRCUIT with nothing new to say about any of the ideas those films explored better. The closest CHAPPIE gets to focusing on something is the “Be creative!” mantra it attempts to achieve by having Patel yell “Be creative!” at Chappie repeatedly, and its constant anti-violence sentiments that are eventually contradicted by its action-packed climax that revels in its super cool violence. Granted, yes, it is a thrilling, well-staged set piece but it’s counter intuitive to the point Blomkamp is trying to make. One scene in particular has Chappie literally denouncing violence in dialogue while the filmmaking celebrates the brutal beatdown he’s partaking in. It’s embarrassingly tone-deaf filmmaking.
But even looking at CHAPPIE on the surface there’s really not much going on. The plot pushes forward just fast enough to trick people into thinking it all adds up, but it picks up and drops characters, motivations and stakes so often that it’s hard to track what the movie is truly about at times. The film opens with talking heads in a faux-documentary – just as DISTRICT 9 did – and then never returns to them because who cares, right? And it then moves on to multiple cringe-inducing moments of characters shouting repeated exposition at one another (“This is who I am, what I’m doing, why I’m doing what I’m doing and what we’re going to be doing in the next scene!”) that is made even harder to swallow by the fact that the people delivering it are the South African rap group Die Antwoord – wearing Die Antwoord merch to the tune of Die Antwoord. It’s hard to tell if Blomkamp even realizes he’s officially hit the self-parody phase that we usually see late in a filmmaker’s career. Again, we’re talking about a movie that un-ironically delivers a central theme and plot beat through a motivational cat poster. A moment that fails as a joke and undercuts the point its trying to make. It is almost impressively incompetent.
CHAPPIE is essentially that scene in SHORT CIRCUIT 2 where Johnny Five is recruited to help a gang steal a car. Maybe if it wasn’t so excruciatingly serious and attempted to embrace its inherent absurdity, Blomkamp could’ve had something. But with no tonal control it just comes off as a CollegeHumor sketch of DISTRICT 9. Ultimately what we’re left with is a stale, inhumane film about the beauty and richness of humanity that fails to execute every single one of its ideas and ends on a big, dumb action set piece that will make you forget where the movie started and how it got there.