I really do adore Neill Blomkamp, and his first film, District 9, in particular. Although it doesn’t have as many fans as it did back in 2009, I still hold it up as one of the most spectacular debuts in recent years. His sophomore project, Elysium, may have been a huge disappointment, but it speaks volumes about the love for District 9 that most people will still agree that Blomkamp is a true visionary – albeit one blinded at times by his own ambition.
Chappie is his third attempt, and although it never gets close to the brilliance of District 9, it’s far more memorable than Elysium.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Release Date: March 6, 2015
Country: South Africa
So, how is it that a man with such a track record is called a visionary? Why did everyone and their mothers lose their minds when he announced that he’d be directing the next movie in the Alien franchise? Well, because the science fiction genre has struggled for years when it comes to high-concept movies. There are of course masterpieces like Primer, Moon, and Sunshine, but all these are fairly limited in scope (except possibly Sunshine). In the science fiction genre, Blomkamp’s voice was a breath of fresh air. Plus, he had an incredible eye for detail and a fundamental understanding of both characters and environmental storytelling.
In District 9, he created a believable universe to tell his high-concept story. In a fictional dystopian future, an alien race has landed on earth, only to be quarantined in the slums of Johannesburg, where a local newsagent (Sharlto Copley) gets infected with a virus. Without Blomkamp’s earnest wish to actually realize a deeply personal and resonant story, the entire project would have fallen on its face as an over-ambitious alien invasion story. Sadly, over-ambitious is exactly what Elysium was. It had potential, but it was neutered by Blomkamp’s inability to hold back on the sociopolitical commentary, made worse by heavy studio involvement.
In Chappie, he takes us back to the not so distant future, and yet again we are in a downtrodden Johannesburg – in this case, the first city to use a full blown mechanized police force, created by a bunch of poorly-utilized Hollywood faces: Sigourney Weaver is criminally underutilized as the big boss, and Hugh Jackman plays a sullen asshole with a Mullet haircut, who hates everyone around him because his project – an even bigger and badder robot – doesn’t get anywhere. (Maybe because it needs a human mind to function.) Last, but certainly not least, there’s Dev Patel, as the enthusiastic, ambitious youngster, who wants to create the first droid that can think and feel for itself. This he does, but sadly, they get taken (I can’t use the word “kidnapped” post-Taken) by a trio of criminals – played by Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi Visser as well as the more low-key Jose Pablo Cantillo.
They do this because they need to pull off an impossible heist so a super scary gangsta criminal warlord won’t murder them, and what better way to do that, than with a droid at their side? They get Chappie. Metaphorically born before their eyes, he is a child who needs to be taught and cared for. Thus Ninja and Yolandi take on the roles as his surrogate parents, and try to raise him as badass gangsta #1! But of course nerdy Mr. Patel has to get involved and teach Chappie right from wrong.
As with Elysium, the narrative has tons of potential, so it’s sad to say that it fails very hard, countless times. It’s difficult to really understand the motivations of each character, and the movie is littered with crazy and unbelievable moments. Hugh Jackman’s character pulling a gun on one of his co-workers IN THE OFFICE is simply glanced over. Big and seemingly important conversations about morality, and life and death, are handled with less care than any other scenes in the movie. It would be understandable, but no less poor, in a student film, where the self-proclaimed cinephile wants a scene or two to sound philosophical and important, so he can feel mature and clever. But in the third outing of a serious sci-fi director? Not a chance. There are countless problems like this, along with poorly written dialogue and scenes that ruin every illusion of realism – and that says a lot in a movie about droids and mechs fighting in the streets of Johannesburg.
Even so, there is a lot to enjoy about Chappie. Mostly, Chappie. I know a lot of people will dislike, maybe even hate, the character – motion captured by Sharlto Copley – but I found him to be a loveable goon, with more heart and soul than many actual human protagonists in recent blockbusters. The fact that Copley was on set in every scene lends a lot to the realism and physical space Chappie inhabits, and goes along way in adding to the environmental storytelling I like so much in Blomkamp’s movies. It feels real. The dystopian Johannesburg looks and feels believable, like a place you could actually visit or see on television news. When you talk about production design, it’s never as impressive as in Blomkamp’s movies. Even Elysium looked and felt incredible. The high rise in the opening scene was so well constructed I had to use Google Image Search for hours upon hours when I got home, and the same goes for the slums in both District 9 and Elysium. They deserve all the recognition in the world, and showcases just how important production design is.
The music, composed by Hans Zimmer, is also on point. It fits the universe they’ve created beautifully, and mixes very well with the diegetic sounds of Die Antwoord. Because throughout the movie, the characters of Ninja and Yolandi listen a lot to their own music. As a huge Die Antwoord fan, I loved this. It made scenes memorable, and with some metahumor – I mean, Yolandi namedrops Neill Blomkamp in “Cookie Thumper!” saying “Neill Blomkamp’s making me a movie star” – it’s all in good fun. However, as with their abilities to act, I can’t deny the fact that it doesn’t really lend itself to the movie as a whole. It feels masturbatory at times, which fans of Die Antwoord will love, while those who are not – or the more cynical critic in me – will find it distracting. I will add, however, that Yolandi managed to find a maternal love in her role that was inarguably beautiful. Sadly, outside of these scenes, there wasn’t too much to applaud in terms of acting abilities.
Even worse are the Hollywood faces. Sigourney Weaver doesn’t get a chance to shine, which is the real crime here – not Die Antwoord counting dope and stealing cash – and Hugh Jackman was laughably uninspired. I hesitate to use the word “bad,” because he is usually a decent actor, but this was a huge, catastrophic misstep. I struggle to describe it, because there are no comparisons to be made in his career. Dev Patel is Dev Patel. Charming and talented, but he very much plays himself – either it’s the version we’ve seen in The Newsroom or on the couch with Graham Norton.
Chappie is a difficult one to pin down for me. I found a lot to like about it, but cannot look past the obvious issues it has. The narrative doesn’t work very well, and the characters are poorly developed and acted, but when it comes down to brass tacks, I know I’ll re-watch this at some point. I loved Chappie’s heart, Ninja’s hilarity, Yolandi’s affectionate maternal role, and the stunning production design, but beyond this, it’s difficult to recommend.