NEILL Blomkamp is anything but subtle. District 9 – a searing examination of Apartheid via explosions and clicky-faced “prawns” – was an arresting debut that pushed all the right buttons before descending into an industry-standard third act shoot-out. His much-hyped Elysium – an us-and-them invective on healthcare and the injustices of class – was a fumbled embarrassment with a martyr complex, starring a confused Matt Damon and the wandering accent of Jodie Foster.
Since James Cameron has rambled off into endless Avatar sequels on Pandora, the mantle of “sci-fi-blockbuster-with-things-on-his-mind guy” seems to have fallen to Blomkamp – the South African writer/director has certainly inherited Cameron’s penchant for the storybook in his films. His third feature, Chappie, is a fable in the vein of Pinnochio, with a gangsta robo(t) cop instead of a wooden puppet. Just like Cameron at his worst, however, the height of Blomkamp’s concepts elude his reach. Elysium suffered the most for this, but Chappie’s earnest charm elevates it beyond its narrative limitations.
The comparisons to Robocop and Short Circuit II have already been made elsewhere, so let’s judge Chappie on its own merits. In the near-future of Johannesburg, a squadron of Scouts – invincible robotic police grunts designed by genius Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) – are rapidly cutting down the crime in the city. Wanting to test a new, “Consciousness” AI update, Deon whisks away a damaged Scout unit. On the way, he is kidnapped by Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Visser – no, really) who plan to use the robot for their own ends – but not before naming it: Chappie (Sharlto Copley).
Firstly, Chappie has been mistreated by its marketing campaign. The poster’s tagline – “Humanity’s last hope isn’t human” – spectacularly misses the point. The trailer sells it as a balls-to-the-wall action flick with the fate of the planet at stake, when really the action and setting is quite grounded. Chappie is an action film in the sense that there are scenes of action in it. Most of the running time, surprisingly, favours Chappie’s development as a character over his capacity to blow shit up.
Sharlto Copley – the highlight from both of Blomkamp’s prior films – provides the emotional core as the titular ‘bot through motion capture. Copley, reliably, proves himself to be the saving grace of the film, bringing an aching vulnerability and joie d’vivre to Chappie that rivals Andy Serkis’ mo-cap work. Serkis at least has had the easier job of mo-capping organic creatures where the eyes – the most emotive and inviting of organs – are visible. Copley’s lump of clobbered metal has no such luck, and yet Chappie is the most adorable, likeable automaton since WALL-E.
Chappie’s terror upon activation; his infectious enthusiasm for sentience; his dismay at the violence in the world all build such a strong rapport with the audience that we find ourselves feeling the same way. Chappie’s childlike understanding of life – though hampered by an artificial five-day time-limit – is the film’s real triumph. In another film it might have stumbled into manipulation, but Copley’s capable hands guides Chappie away from sentimentality.
Patel offers capable support as the idealistic Deon, a creator that can provide no answers to Chappie’s pointed, “Why did you make me so I would die?” Rounding out the Holy Trinity metaphor is the unique weirdness of Die Antwoord as, essentially, themselves, right down to their band-branded paraphernalia and their inclusion on the soundtrack. Ninja is the Father, an abrasive hoodlum who teaches Chappie how to correctly hold his submachine gun, while Visser is the Mother, a more compassionate figure that encourages Chappie’s artistic sensibilities and reads him bedtime stories about black sheep.
Parallel to the religious metaphor, there’s also a strong Pinocchio element running through Chappie’s veins as the robot comes to grips with his mortality, his sentience and what it means to be a real boy. Blade Runner this ain’t, but Chappie grapples best with these big issues when its focus is settled, namely on Chappie himself. Beset on all sides by violence and contradictory parental figures, Chappie’s struggle to find himself provides the most compelling narrative fodder.
Die Antwoord’s grungy aesthetic chimes with their base of operations, a run-down warehouse with angry graffiti daubed all over the walls. Blomkamp’s understanding of the ghetto, as evidenced in both his previous films, once again comes to the fore; the dog-eyed desperation of Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) fits perfectly with their dilapidated surroundings. Though the ghetto imagery is not as relied on here as it was in District 9, Blomkamp uses it to amplify the nervy fervour of its residents and the action sequences.
Though shot with characteristic verve, Chappie’s action scenes are among the weakest in the film. They provide an excuse to feature ricochets and dust and boomsplosions, despite being executed well. But they’re not the focus; they’re merely examples of Blomkamp’s predilection to shoot swift, gut-punch action scenes that fulfil our primal need to see shit blow up. They’re really there to distract our attention from the philosophical questions that never truly receive adequate answers.
The film has other narrative hamstrings. The inclusion of Hugh Jackman’s mulletted Vincent Moore, a grinning psychopath in possession of a bipedal murder jetpack machine called the Moose (not the ED-209 or a Metal Gear either), contributes nothing. He’s a bad guy because… he’s a fucking psycho with no real motivation…? Michelle Bradley (a wasted Sigourney Weaver) is a corporate honcho that laughs Deon out of her office at the prospect of sentient artificial intelligence.
Muscle-bound Hippo (Brandon Auret) is a crime lord whose lines amount, loudly, to, “I want everything!” At one point, Chappie violently beats the shit out of someone while yelling, “No more violence!” Huh? There’s even some shockingly obvious product placement involving Playstation 4s – courtesy of distributor Sony Pictures – not to mention Die Antwoord wearing clothes sporting their own brand.
These are unfortunate sideshows in a film that never needed them. Narrative imbalance and unevenness of tone has always been Blomkamp’s biggest problem as a filmmaker; Chappie succeeds in many regards, especially its eponymous figure, but these are the flaws that hold it back. The film doesn’t slow down often enough to let its messages sink in – messages that, let’s face it, have been tackled better in superior films.
For all its setbacks, Chappie is a flawed but deeply ambitious fable. It’s a story with a moral message, and perhaps we shouldn’t judge it too harshly for a lack of substantive depth. I just wish I knew exactly what the message was.