Chappie

Review by David Ehrlich @davidehrlich

Directed by

Neill Blomkamp

Starring

Hugh Jackman Sharlto Copley Sigourney Weaver

Anticipation.

It looks like Neill Blomkamp’s best yet.

Enjoyment.

Tragically, it is.

In Retrospect.

Save the Aliens.

Neill Blomkamp dazzles and exasperates in equal measure with this cheerily derivative sci-fi extravaganza.

Neill Blomkamp is a goddamn genius. Neill Blomkamp is also an abysmal filmmaker. The great misconception of his stunted career is the fallacy that these two things are mutually exclusive. Few people (if any) have displayed such an impressive knack for building an outsized studio movie around such convincingly organic CG on the cheap (District 9 cost just $30 million), and the fact that it’s always the same outsized studio movie doesn’t appear to be much of an obstacle.

Chappie ($50 million) is the director’s latest rough and tumble sci-fi saga about a socially imbalanced future in which a piece of violent rogue technology upends the status quo of a world that’s teetering on the brink of chaos. And, like both of Blomkamp’s pre-existing features, the potential of its premise is gutted by the whiz-bang banality of its storytelling.

Chappie, like District 9 before it, begins with a barrage of faux documentary footage in which some talking heads reflect on how incredible the film’s story is going to be (“I didn’t think I’d see something like this in my lifetime!”). From there, we’re introduced to the historically stratified South African city of Johannesburg, where the crime rate has plummeted 300 per cent since the deployment of a robotic police force.

Despite single-handedly inventing the technology that made these gun-wielding android cops possible, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) still works in a cramped cubicle at the technology firm that owns his creation. Nevertheless, Deon’s success still manages to enrage his most muscular and envious colleague (a mulleted and uncharacteristically ineffectual Hugh Jackman), whose dialogue consists of several different ways of saying, “I’ll see you in the third act.” Everything’s hunky until, one fateful afternoon, a motivational cat poster shows Deon how to replace the AI of his drones with genuine sentience. Enter the Chappie.

Through a wild and crazy series of events, Chappie winds up being the property of Ninja and Yolandi, better known as Die Antwoord (a very real rap-rave group, the marquee members of which exist at the intersection between 8 Mile and The Fifth Element, and may not even know that they were in this movie). Under the gun to come up with a huge sum of money in less than a week, Ninja and Yolandi engineer a heist, intending to use Chappie as their secret weapon.

Unfortunately for these low-level gangsters, the lanky, rabbit-eared machine is less Skynet than he is a motion-captured Jack (of the Francis Ford Coppola Jacks) — Deon has implanted him with a human intellect, and though Chappie learns at an incredibly accelerated rate, he still starts as an infant. Though the film spans less than seven days, the rappers quickly begin to regard themselves as Chappie’s parents, the endearing emergence of Yolandi’s maternal instincts making for many of the best moments that Blomkamp has ever managed to capture. And as Chappie comes of age, the wishes of his parents conflicting with those of Deon (his expressly non-violent god), the film abandons its pretense to become a parable about what Chappie means for humanity, becoming instead a rather witless portrait of what humanity means for Chappie.

Unsurprisingly, it all looks amazing. Chappie himself is Blomkamp’s greatest achievement, a weathered and tactile CG showcase who would be motion-performed to perfection if not for Sharlto Copley’s grating vocal work (the actor’s spasmodic delivery helps his gold chain-wearing character sound like the robot version of Poochie you always knew you never wanted).

Less indigenous to our world than Andy Serkis’ ape alter-egos, but just as at home in it, Chappie is such a remarkably real achievement that the movie around him looks that much more artificial by contrast — the action looks that much softer, the stakes that much smaller, and the ideas that much simpler. By the time the plot skitters completely off the rails, that Chappie is Blomkamp’s best movie is compelling evidence that he shouldn’t be the one making them.

Published 5 Mar 2015

Anticipation.

It looks like Neill Blomkamp’s best yet.

Enjoyment.

Tragically, it is.

In Retrospect.

Save the Aliens.

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