Back in 2013 Neill Blomkamp seemed to be falling prey to his ego due to the clout he received from District 9 (which I loved), or maybe he was just a one trick pony. The jury is still out on his actual talent to tell the smart science fiction stories he seems to think he’s making, but his stock is falling fast, especially after the box office and critical drubbing Elysium (which I did not love) received.
Now along comes Chappie, Blomkamp’s newest science fiction yarn. The trailers were confusing and made it look like a big budget remake of Short Circuit that takes place in Johannesburg and is filled with non-stop ultraviolence. Is this his redemption or yet another failed attempt to spin a topical story to finicky audiences?
Damaged beyond repair, a South African police drone (motion captured and voiced by Sharlto Copley) is given an experimental artificial intelligence program by his creator (Dev Patel). Unfortunately the robot is taken by a couple of local gangbangers (Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser) to assist in a multimillion dollar heist just as the program is installed. Renamed “Chappie”, the robot slowly becomes more and more human, but can a machine actually become human?
There are a lot of philosophical questions bouncing around this flick and I’m sorry to say that there are no concrete answers given. Just when things become interesting the ball is dropped in favor of some of the goriest action scenes I’ve seen so far this year. Blomkamp seems to revel in introducing interesting concepts into his films, but never knows where to take them and how to properly cap them off without using over the top gunplay and rocket launchers.
I enjoyed most of the film. The character of Chappie is not only intriguing, but fun, adorable and maddeningly inept at times. I couldn’t take my eyes off him mainly due to the fantastic performance by Sharlto Copley. His motion capture is filled with nuance and heart since Chappie has no eyes and all of his emotions had to be portrayed with body language. It really blew my mind and is super impressive.
The amped up Johannesburg where the film takes place is dark, violent and oddly beautiful. It’s almost a character in itself. I just wish Blomkamp didn’t feel the need to set all his films there. It made sense for District 9, but here it was basically so he could cast the main stars of the film – South African rap duo Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of Die Antwoord. This was Blomkamp’s fatal mistake.
The acting in this film is pretty atrocious, especially in the case of Ninja and Yo-Landi who are essentially playing themselves. Seriously, they play characters named Ninja and Yolandi. The only difference is that the hyphen is removed from Yo-Landi’s stage name (her shrill, screeching voice is akin to hearing metal grinding on metal… I shudder just thinking about it). WTF?! They are so bad in this film that the usually annoying Dev Patel comes across as someone trained in the Royal Shakespearean Theatre Company. All they do is scream, curse and act like complete assholes (and from what I read were a nightmare to work with on set). I couldn’t tell if the dialogue was ad-libbed or not, but I refuse to believe that anything that spewed from the mouths of these two “musicians” was written by someone of above average intelligence. What’s worse is the fact that the script wants the audience to identify and sympathize with these fucktards, which is a crime in and of itself. I therefore retract my previous statement about the writers’ intelligence level. Even fucking Hugh Jackman, who is an AMAZING actor, is absolutely wasted here and plays, you guessed it, an asshole. The same goes for an absolutely wasted appearance by Sigourney Weaver. Why is this script filled with nothing but unlikable characters? Why?!
What does work? Chappie. If he wasn’t such a fully realized and wonderfully likable character this flick would have been a complete bust. But even that can’t save the film from its completely ridiculous and silly ending. Remember when I said that Blomkamp doesn’t know how to properly cap off his flicks? Well, he goes completely off the rails here. I’m not talking about the prerequisite action gorefest finale he’s known for. That was rad as hell. I’m talking about his lamesauce and insanely stupid epilogue. If there was any goodwill that I had for this flick before this garbage popped up it was completely gone after witnessing how dumb the story became. I won’t ruin it for those that haven’t seen it yet, but what the fuck was he thinking?! This is the final impression you leave with the audience before the lights come up and they file out of the theater. You want them to be saying stuff like “that was pretty good” or “I want to see that again”. Not “fuck that” or “I wish I got up to take that piss so I wouldn’t have had to endure the I.Q. raping I just received”.
Sure the score by Hans Zimmer is rad. Sure the action scenes are cool and frenetic. Sure the look of the film is gritty and enthralling. Sure the return of District 9’s faux-documentary wraparound storytelling device makes a triumphant comeback. Sure the FX used to bring Chappie to life is a revelation in technology and motion capture. Everything else is a misfire of epic proportions. Bad casting, acting, writing, directing and specific choices are what killed this flick. I just hope it doesn’t put the kibosh on Neill Blomkamp’s career before he has a chance to show us what he can really do in the realm of science fiction. I have high hopes for his already greenlit Alien 5. I just hope he doesn’t ruin that franchise by casting talentless douchebag rappers as Ripley’s sidekicks.