Surveillance, ghettoisation, violence and identity are tough themes for a first-time filmmaker to handle, especially with a cast unknown outside of South Africa and a plot which functions as an obvious and controversial political metaphor. That Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 debut District 9 pulled all of this off seemed to herald a major new talent. The vitality and abrasive ghetto-blaster rhythm of District 9 were, for the most part, carried over to his sophomore feature Elysium, whose occasional clumsiness can easily be forgiven, concessions made by a provincial director working in Hollywood for the first time – even David Fincher made an Alien sequel, right?
Yes, but Fincher followed it up with Se7en, whose almost physically painful title stylisation is its only real weakness. Blomkamp has instead made Chappie, a hopeless attempt to resurrect the post-punk dystopian aesthetics used to chaotic and enjoyable effect in District 9. Somewhere along the development process, Blomkamp’s evident love for all things cybernetic, cryptographic, and CPU must have derailed the work of the storyboarding department: ridiculous narrative decision-making, characters that make even less sense than the film’s ear-grating Afrikaners, and some completely nonsensical stabs at satire render Chappie even worse than forgettable. It’s draining and disappointing.
The massive let-down that the film provides is enhanced by the potential it holds on paper – all of the elements of another smart, grimy mech-thriller are here The plot revolves around the Tetravaal corporation in future Johannesburg, which has developed the “Scouts” – robotic police officers that successfully combat the city’s rampant organised crime. Two of their engineers, Deon Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) and Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), clash over the company’s direction, with Moore pushing for the deployment of his own quasi-military armoured behemoth “Moose” and Wilson working secretly on something more radical: a robot that can simulate a real human mind. When the robot arrives, it’s not only a welcome return to a starring role for Blomkamp’s frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley, sidelined to a minor role in the more US-centric Elysium, but also the catalyst for the main story, as Wilson is kidnapped, and the robot stolen, by a crew of small-time criminals owing cash to a brutal mobster. They christen him “Chappie” and, releasing Deon, begin to mould the Scout in their image, preparing him to help in a robbery which will repay their debts.
Unfortunately, how all of this goes down is riddled with plot holes. When Deon approaches the formidable CEO of Tetravaal (Sigourney Weaver, extending her recent career phase of cross-production appearances as “Bitch in Suit”) with his ‘consciousness.dat’ program, she refuses to let him use cast-off company robots to test it, and shows little interest in general. Bear in mind that he thinks he’s synthesised human consciousness in data form – i.e. literally the most incredible invention in the history of the world. This unlikely impetus motivates Deon to pilfer a robot to upload the file into, creating an embryonic consciousness that will become Chappie, which is promptly stolen again by the gang. Equally improbably, they allow Deon to return to their shabby hideout for strange parental visits, where he tries to instil a moral compass in his baby. The whole thing is weird and uncomfortable; with Chappie developing in the same way as human would from childhood to adulthood, the sequences where he is given training in how to be a cool, violent gangster take on a mean, abusive tone, which would be appropriate were they not played mostly for laughs. Dev Patel doesn’t have the age or everyman appeal to balance ‘professional roboticist’ and ‘kind-of-father’ either, and so it’s hard to invest in Deon as a character, even though he’s ostensibly playing the human lead in the same vein as Copley in District 9. Seeing Chappie – still in ‘child’ form – adorned with stencils and bling, and lectured about the right way to hold a pistol, never feels particularly witty, or even effectively satirical. Instead, it’s like watching a child beauty pageant, or a seeing a dog wearing lipstick: funny for two minutes, then it just makes you sad.
Adding to these dumb plot elements are some completely failed out-there casting attempts. The two criminals to whom the film pays the most attention (they have a third, completely superfluous, accomplice) are played by Ninja and Yolandi Visser, who comprise the controversial South African rap unit Die Antwoord. While their idiosyncratic classless image is actually perfect for Blomkamp’s sun-bleached post-punk Joburg – and their purposefully overblown acting not too bad – there are some unnecessary and confusing attempts at reflexivity. The Die Antwoord pair plays characters sharing their real stage names, and at a few key points, they are shown wearing band-branded clothing, or their music appears on the soundtrack to reference the storyline. At one point, Visser wears a T-shirt bearing the same stylised ‘Chappie’ logo as the film’s poster. Where the hell would she have got that? Whatever Blomkamp was going for in referencing the duo’s main career is lost on me – it makes zero sense, and intrudes on what were otherwise reasonable performances. Jackman fares little better – bafflingly depicted as a threatening ex-forces Australian stereotype with no background whatsoever, his lack of characterisation renders his emergence as the main villain totally unsatisfying. He could quite literally disappear from the film and it would make more sense.
Neill Blomkamp is absolutely not a bad filmmaker, and he will make better films than Chappie again. The video-game aesthetics seen early in the film, as well as in the climactic action sequences, remain as fresh as ever, but are woefully underused with Chappie, who instead ends up as a vehicle for simple pathos. Sharlto Copley, too, retains some credit; his comic appropriation of wannabe-tough Saffer culture for Chappie would generate a few more laughs if it were not stuck in such a mean-spirited plot. Prioritising film style while actively retreading the narrative concerns (and shortcomings) of previous films, though, is the sign of a director with a death wish, and no amount of fancy cyberpunk CGI or exploding helicopters can rescue Chappie from becoming District 9’s halfwitted cousin.
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