When South African science fiction filmmaker Neill Blomkamp burst onto the cinema scene with District 9 in 2009, he was hailed as one of the most promising directors in the industry. His mainstream follow-up was dystopian epic Elysium, which was met with a contrastingly frosty reception. Is he a one trick pony or was his second feature a mere hiccup in his path to further critical acclaim? His third film, titled ‘Chappie’ continues the sci-fi pattern and returns to Johannesburg, the setting of his debut. Set in a future where a robotic police force known as ‘scouts’ have been introduced to reduce high crime rates and regain order on the chaotic streets of Joburg, the narrative follows the inventor of these law enforcement machines, Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel. Against the orders of his boss Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) and angering office rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman), he tests his home-made AI program on a disused robot, his experiment resulting in the birth of Chappie, voiced by regular Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley. However, when he and Chappie are forced into forming an alliance with a local gang of criminals, the potential threat of his conception is unveiled. Can he raise his creation to fight crime rather than commit it?
Like his previous efforts, the premise of Chappie is one with real promise and as a director, Blomkamp expresses his striking visual style which is well suited to the genre he continues to place himself in. The opening sequence sets the scene in a documentarian manner, much like District 9 did with footage of news channels and talking heads thrown together. The similarities with what we’ve seen from him before drives home his lack of creativity, and it is almost as if he is trying to redo his past films to improve them rather than attack a new idea with a fresh approach. The problems lie mainly in the heavy-handed storytelling as the story becomes cluttered with one-dimensional, motiveless characters. The triumphs in scientific achievement are glossed over by lazy montages more than once, with just a combination of one energy drink and taking off your glasses for a quick think resulting in the most significant of breakthroughs. When he finally arrives, the eponymous android is a joy to watch as he finds his robotic feet in the world but not enough screen time is spent between him and his beloved ‘maker’, which belittles the attempted father/son connection between the two when the conclusion nears.
Dev Patel is probably the only actor who comes away unscathed from the project, making the best of the material he has to work with and maintaining his likeable image. Hugh Jackman’s character is given the back-story of a devoted, decorated military man but is quickly reduced to a snivelling snitch who carries around a rugby ball for the whole film as a symbol of his masculinity. The aforementioned thugs that try to take advantage of Deon’s intellect are weirdly played by South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord, going by the aliases Ninja and Yolandi both on-screen and off. Devoid of acting talent, their personality traits change drastically from scene to scene, and they appear far more interested in their distractingly fluorescent image and the promotion of their back catalogue, than adding any depth to their villainous alter-egos.
For a film about intelligence, artificial or not, ‘Chappie’ is really rather dumb and the narrative shortcuts lessen the value and the impact of the initial idea, which is interesting in the first instance. As a filmmaker, Blomkamp has obvious strengths in building intelligent plot foundations and also in the way he directs and constructs big-budget action set pieces. We see signs of this in Chappie but the lethargic script proves to be his downfall. Surely now it’s time to draw the line under the man/machine sub-genre that he’s tried so desperately to master and move onto another strand of science-fiction. Director Alex Garland already topped his attempts in that area with the thought-provoking Ex Machina earlier this year. Not to be swayed from the field completely, Blomkamp is set to undertake the unenviable but nevertheless exciting challenge of directing the next chapter of the cult sci-fi horror Alien franchise. No pressure.