Director Neill Blomkamp's Elysium was one of my favorite films of 2013. "This is the good stuff," I said of the director's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated District 9, and I meant it. Well, while the year is young, it's looking like his follow-up film, Chappie, may earn itself the opposite honor and end up on my "worst of 2015" list. Yep, it's that bad. The sci-fi fable, about a robot that gains sentience, has an intriguing premise at its core, but it's rare to see a talented filmmaker with so many tools and so much talent at his disposal squander a compelling idea so thoroughly.
It's South Africa, 2020, and to combat the rampant crime, the Johannesburg PD has enlisted a high-end weapons manufacturer (think OCP from RoboCop, with Sigourney Weaver as "the Old Man") to provide them an army of robotic police drones to augment the extant human police force. When the drones' designer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who's experimenting with artificial intelligence, is kidnapped by gang members (Ninja & Yolandi Visser) who want to repurpose a 'bot for their own ends, the result is Chappie, a drone that acts human and sounds like Sharlto Copley.
As Deon attempts (in secret) to teach Chappie what it means to "be," giving the robot children's books, paint sets, etc., his fellow engineer Vincent Moore, a mulleted former soldier played by Hugh Jackman, is quietly seething that the widespread acceptance of Wilson's designs has essentially squeezed out his own model police robot, the armed-to-the-teeth Moose (think ED-209 from RoboCop). What follows then is several plot lines zigzagging and overlapping over each other, culminating in an explode-y climax that dials up the decibels and dials down the smarts.
You'll note, I brought up RoboCop twice in the above two paragraphs, and the reason is that the influence of that seminal 1987 flick (maybe not so much the 2014 remake) is all over this thing. But weirdly, it's like Blomkamp (who wrote the script with wife Teri Tatchell) took the exact wrong lessons from it. Per Chappie, Wilson computer-driven police robots are good, and we're supposed to boo-hiss Moore's model, which relies on a human operator to function. Now, maybe it's just me, but given the option, I'd sure prefer to have a human being making life or death decisions rather than a computer.
Of course, even when the deck is so obviously and clumsily stacked against Moore (He's religious! He's carrying a pistol on his hip! And did you see that mullet?), Hugh Jackman can still spin it into gold, so his inclusion in the cast at least makes sense. More confusing is Blomkamp's inclusion of Ninja and Visser, members of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, to play fictionalized versions of themselves as Chappie's surrogate parents. Given their painfully obvious lack of acting experience, it's a head-scratcher why he'd assign so much valuable screen time to them.
You'll note that I've gone six paragraphs without talking about the titular character, which just underscores how much the movie gets wrong, rendering what little it gets right almost an afterthought. Still, make no mistake about it, the character of Chappie (he's given that handle, by the way, after Yolandi calls him a "happy chappie") is truly a marvel of moviemaking, thanks to the motion capture and voice work by Blomkamp regular Copley. What a shame that the film wasn't content to focus on his journey instead of a ridiculous third act twist that practically begs you to throw your hands in the air and say "C'maaahn."
The special effects work and action sequences are unquestionably impressive, but I think what makes Chappie such a severe disappointment is that it seems like the man who burst on the scene six years ago with District 9 seems content to tread water with another variation of the same story ("a corrupt system undone from within by a fortuitous hybrid," as a friend glibly described it). Who knows, maybe his upcoming Alien sequel will allow him to put something new on offer, but for now, three movies into his oeuvre, it's sure starting to look like we've hit the boundaries of Neill Blomkamp's particular wheelhouse. D