“Chappie” is the third feature film from writer and director Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp is best known for his breakout hit “District 9,” a gritty science fiction exploration of impoverished alien refugees in Johannesburg, South Africa. After turning his gaze to the upper atmosphere in the clean space Utopian future of Elysium, Blomkamp returns to the dirt with another ride around Johannesburg.
Chappie is a sentient robot. He has emotions and can feel pain. Early on, this film leaves science fiction behind for the philosophical. What was probably intended to be big questions about what it means to exist is just one big sigh. The film is equal parts overly-explicit and underdeveloped. What little substance in this film is just shouted at you. I don’t recommend seeing it.
Some more of my problems with this film:
1. It stars Die Antwoord
Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er are just the worst in this film. Their only functions are to have one dimensional goals that move the plot forward and to make visually interesting personal decor choices. If they were just off to the side like Rihanna in 2012’s Battleship I might have understood, but no. They are functionally the leads of this film. You might think their personal aesthetic of cultural appropriation is cool. I found it more inauthentic than “District 9’s” actual South African shanties.
2. The huge waste of super cool puppet/VFX magic
I don’t know if Chappie is a puppet or a complete creation of computer wizardry. This invisible use of computer graphics is the only place where Chappie tops all of Blomkamp’s previous attempts. Make no mistake, there are still some pretty silly moments with a flying jet mech called “The Moose.” Luckily, the quiet moments where Chappie just interacts with things and moves around the world feel so physically real. I would have loved to see this magic in service of something worthwhile.
3. It undercuts Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver
Hugh Jackman plays evil in khaki shorts. As Chappie’s big bad, Jackman has a bit of fun playing a broadly resentful engineer soldier. Full boar bad guy Jackman is something I’ve wanted to see since 2006’s “The Prestige” gave him a rich moral discoloration to express. The script fails him. As bad as it is, the film never lets Jackman do anything valuable other than cackle and look sad. It is even worse for Sigourney Weaver who could have been replaced or taken out of the movie entirely.
4. Those terrible bumpers
The film opens with a lot of Anderson Cooper. If you’ve seen any trailer for Chappie you’ve seen at least part of this. It’s horrible. It feels like they could think of no better way of explaining their created universe than literally having it read from a card to the audience.
Part of “District 9’s” found footage value comes from the reality that the film draws from. Some interviewed weren’t talking about illegal aliens from outer space, just their next door neighbors whom they did not like and wished would just move away. “Chappie’s” tone and pace doesn’t match the found footage or newsreel pieces at the beginning and end. Where “District 9” was this loud public thrill ride dealing with public officials and a large political operation, “Chappie” seeks a subdued personal drama. It does not fit.
5. Neill Blomkamp’s other stuff is better
Literally every other thing Blomkamp has ever made is better than this film. The action in the film has a bigger budget than what he could accomplish with his shorts, but the shorts have a concision and single mindedness that is absent here.
If you are a Neill Blomkamp completionist and you absolutely want to see everything this guy makes, go to the film. If you want a shallow future tech action romp, go see “Elysium” which had some great video game like visuals. If you want a surprisingly thoughtful and violent science fiction film set in a place you’ve never seen before go see “District 9.”
I have liked Blomkamp since he showed up as a fledgling under Peter Jackson’s wing. He only had a few shorts and the raw ambition to direct a Halo movie. He’s made one very good and one very fun movie but this film is a step back.
“Chappie” is now playing at AMC Mayfair and Marcus Theatres.