Neill Blomkamp continues his visually rich yet story-poor downward spiral of moviemaking with his new film Chappie, opening March 6th. There’s no denying Blomkamp has an eye for seamless assimilation of science fiction into his projects, yet seems also to craft inane, ridiculous allegorical story tropes that get worse with each passing film. Chappie has no idea what it wants to be, and deigns to make horrible decisions in trying to become self-aware. The intelligence in this film isn’t just artificial, it’s pretty much nonexistent.
Blomkamp brings us once again to Johannesburg in the near future, where crime is rampant and police are targets. This changes when a force of robot police scouts are developed by engineer Deon (Dev Patel). The robots work well, but Deon isn’t satisfied. He wants to test an upgrade that would give the scouts complete sentience. His boss (Sigourney Weaver) wants nothing to do with this test for some reason, so Deon steals a defunct robot to test himself. This robot becomes Chappie (voiced by Blomkamp fave Sharlto Copley).
Unfortunately, he (and the film) are kidnapped by thugs (Ninja and Yolandi of the rap-rave group Die Antwoord), in what might be the dumbest stunt casting of the young millennia. Imagine the Insane Clown Posse showing up as a significant piece to your film, and you get the idea. Their presence is inexplicable, and brings any momentum Chappie manages to attain to a halt. We are given a small glimpse of Chappie becoming ‘human’ only to quickly give way to lame thugification cliches and bad acting by the pair. It’s a frustrating and unforced error.
Hugh Jackman shows up as a rival engineer intent on selling his robot to the police, a more weapons-heavy machine straight out of Robocop. He makes a go of his one-note baddie as best he can, but Hugh Jackman is no match for a huge act, man (sorry). And that’s what Blomkamp unfortunately delivers. An act that tries and fails at being insightful in any real way, but also never delivers at the prospect of being just dumb cool action. None of the elements of this film are on the same floor of the building. The existential tear-jerker type moments when Chappie questions humanity have no emotional heft if we don’t give a rip about any of the characters involved. Murderous drug-dealing thugs don’t make for much sympathy in a film this tone-deaf.
Chappie ends up wasting sometimes dazzling effects in a film that leaves one wondering if Neill Blomkamp can ever live up to the potential of his much better debut, District 9. That film got an Oscar nomination for best picture. Chappie will certainly not. Finally, it was revealed that Blomkamp will be directing the next installment of the Alien franchise. While the prospect of his visual style should have sci-if fans excited, here’s hoping someone else handles the story.