Sony presents a film directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell. Produced by Simon Kinberg. Music by Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Trent Opaloch. Edited by Julian Clarke, Mark Goldblatt. Production designed by Jules Cook. Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver.
How the mighty have fallen. In 2009, director Neill Blomkamp made District 9, a low-budget but large-canvas sci-fi blockbuster that melded action with significant social commentary, which was treasured by sci-fi fans who seek out the new and different. His 2012 follow-up, Elysium, was a confused and overall much-less successful sci-fi adventure, prompting worries that perhaps Blomkamp was a one-hit wonder. Now Blomkamp returns with Chappie, a story of thinking robots…that is pretty darn stupid. It’s a catastrophic misfire made entirely out of spare parts (it liberally quotes Robocop, Short Circuit, and Terminator 2), and while it pantomimes some thought-provoking ideas, in its heart it’s a shockingly dumb shoot ‘em up playing with sci-fi tropes, peppered with R-rated gore.
Indeed, the only thing that really distinguishes Chappie is both its gruesome violence and its mean-spirited tone. This is as unremittingly nasty a sci-fi epic as there ever was. It posits a future (well, 2016), where the police department of Johannesburg, South Africa has been replaced entirely by robot soldiers that target criminals with horrific impunity (in an opening sequence that, like many things, the film fails to really think about). The robotics firm CEO (Sigourney Weaver, cashing a paycheck) has two troublemakers on her payroll: Deon (Dev Patel), a fresh-faced engineer who may have cracked the code for artificial intelligence and Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a ridiculously over-the-top madman who wants to unleash a remote controlled lumbering war machine (named “Moose”) as an ultimate crime fighter. Vincent is one of those corporate villains that the movies love: a guy who no one ever notices is a dangerous psychopath because the plot demands it.
Deon plans to use a discarded robot as a guinea pig for his new intelligence program, but he’s kidnapped by a violent gang led by Ninja (played by…Ninja, of the South African rap group Die Antwoord). Ninja and his cohorts Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser, also of Die Antwoord) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) force Deon to do his experiment for their benefit, since they’re deep in dept to a mobster and a gun-toting robot sounds keen. Thus, Chappie, a sentient robot, is born.
Chappie is played by Blomkamp staple Sharlto Copley in a blend of motion capture and CGI that is, let it be said, uniformly excellent. But as a character, Chappie is a non-starter, bereft of much personality and blessed only with the dependency (and overall emotional maturity) of a child. His speech, which he copies entirely from the severely limited vocabularies of the dumb gangsters, is irritating, and watching him be indoctrinated into a villainous thug lifestyle is seriously depressing, in ways that I don’t think Blomkamp fully intended. The movie has a hole where its hero should be, as Chappie throughout is singularly dim-witted, impressionable, and ultimately subsumed by the movie’s obsession with violence.
But Chappie is at least an innocent corrupted by the world around him. Almost everyone else on screen is utterly loathsome. The three gangsters, adorned with vulgar tattoos and squatting in a warehouse piled high with trash and disgusting graffiti, are deeply unpleasant to watch and fatally uninteresting, yet the movie cannot get enough of them. Yolandi comes off best, because, as the sole female in the group, she becomes Chappie’s de facto mother; she comes closest to feeling like an actual human being. Ninja, on the other hand, starts as a noxious pest and ends up as a monument to Blomkamp’s disinterest into anything approaching solid character development.
What ultimately scuppers Chappie, really, is that it is a supremely dark and yet bathed in self-denial, and although Blomkamp’s world-building and action sequences are well-conceived, his story hasn’t been thought through. It’s heartbreaking to see Chappie become such a nasty gangster machine, and when the robot saves the day in a bombastic climax, Blomkamp appallingly wants to stimulate fist-pumping more than the disquiet he has actually earned. He always piles sci-fi ideas into his basket, but this time he especially seems to do it just for show, perhaps because now working for a big studio he is prisoner to the philosophy that all thoughtful sci-fi must end with a million gunfights. Chappie is a pretty sad and ugly film.