After failing to launch an ambitious big screen adaptation of videogame sensation “Halo,” South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp unleashed “District 9,” a tale of aliens abandoned in the slums of Johannesburg that was easily one of the boldest debuts in recent science fiction memory. (It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, along with Adapted Screenplay, Visual Effects and Editing.) Blomkamp’s follow-up, “Elysium,” was a much larger and loftier proposition, featuring movie stars like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster and an ungainly plot concerning a post-apocalyptic earth and a glittery space station where the planet’s wealthy have relocated. Looking back on it, the movie is smart and entertaining and ahead of its time (#OccupyElysium), but it failed to connect on the visceral or emotional level that “District 9” did. For his third film, “Chappie,” Blomkamp returns to a story that is more in line, in scale, theme and emotional heft, to “District 9,” to tell the story of a precocious, sentient robot. If there’s a major problem with “Chappie” though, it’s that it hedges a little too closely to Blomkamp’s first film.
As “Chappie” begins, so do the feelings of déjà vu: once again we’re thrust into a dusty, dystopian future and once again this future is captured in a series of faux documentary snippets. This time, though, newscasters (including, for some reason, Anderson Cooper) are discussing what life is like “after Chappie,” a character who hasn’t been introduced yet. The movie then cuts to 18 months before these broadcasts, when the plot begins in earnest (the faux documentary conceit is, thankfully, abandoned at this point as well). It seems that in the future, Johannesburg is largely relegated by a robotic police force, designed by young whiz Deon (Dev Patel). Deon, however, wants to create a robot that can actually think and feel for itself, something that both his corporate overlord Michelle Bradley (played by a sadly underserved Sigourney Weaver) and his colleague Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) are in strong opposition to. Bradley wants to keep making money and Moore prefers his own project, a hulking machine called The Moose, which is piloted by a human being.
Of course, this being a cautionary science fiction tale of technology run amok, Deon goes ahead with his experiment, stealing a busted police droid and uploading his new consciousness program. It just so happens that this is the same day that a couple of thugs (played by Ninja and Yolandi Visser from the South African rap outfit Die Antwoord) decide to hijack one of the police robots, in the hopes that they can make Deon reprogram it for their own nefarious purposes. Instead of getting a hardened battle bot, though, Chappie (voiced and performed, via the magic of motion capture, by Sharlto Copley) is more like an innocent child. Still, the thugs do everything they can to turn Chappie into an “indestructible robot gangster #1,” with mixed results.
Blomkamp is, undeniably, something of a visionary. His imaginary worlds are always fully formed and hyper-detailed, even if the narratives contained within them don’t measure up. They’re made even more powerful by how closely they resemble our own experience. He’s even more of an essential asset to genre filmmaking because he’s so puckishly confrontational, willing to address current issues in an earnest, head-on way. (Remember those leaked Sony emails urging the marketing to stay away from the hot button sociopolitical implications of “Elysium?”) “Chappie” is no different. Blomkamp seems to be addressing the current state of drone warfare and, as always, the continuing economic divide between the haves and the have-nots, particularly in struggling countries like South Africa. One sequence in the film takes place in a large, abandoned high rise in downtown Johannesburg, part of a small economic boom that quickly went bust and has left the landscape dotted with unfinished or abandoned commercial properties. It’s easy to add thematic texture to the image of an abandoned skyscraper – a building that would have, if completed, been a glittery symbol for prosperity and societal uplift.
Chappie, too, is an ingenious design, especially when you consider that the same design for the hardened police robots also had to double for the more lovable infant robot character. Chappie looks like a robot; there’s nothing superfluous or overtly stylized. He’s got ears, which go a long way in expressing emotion and could conceivably be antennae (or something), and when Die Antwoord remake Chappie as a gangster (complete with graffiti tags and dangling gold chains), it only enhances the character (and truth be told, Copley does a great job). Blomkamp is a director whose characters go through an emotional and design arcs as the film progresses (think about Damon’s robotic exo-skeleton upgrade in “Elysium” or Copley slowly transforming into one of the alien invaders in “District 9”) and Chappie is no exception.
More problematic is the use of Die Antwoord. There was really no reason to think the musicians would pull off any kind of performance, especially after word of their hellish on-set behavior got out. For the most part, though, they pull it off. Ninja is sometimes grating, his wiry figure in oversized boxer shorts the perfect example of what a preening wannabe he really is, but Yolandi somehow injects her performance with some unexpected emotional realism. Neither are great actors and both might have been monsters while making the movie, but Blomkamp (with the help of some ingenious editors, no doubt) somehow crafts performances that work, if not completely, than at least in the context of the film. (Jackman, as the snarling bad guy, is a hoot.)
By the time “Chappie” is over, it might remind you a bit too much of Blomkamp’s earlier triumph. Like “District 9,” this is a movie that is ostensibly aimed at young children (aliens! Robots!), but contains enough gushy ultra-violence to marginally squeak past with an R. It’s a movie where a high concept is grafted to an occasionally uncomfortable level of realism and where, at the end, humanity is once again essentially doomed, giving way to something other. Still, between the charming Copley performance, the ingenious visuals, the absolutely incredible all-electronic Hans Zimmer score (seriously, this is one of his best ever), and the propulsive narrative thrust (Blomkamp is rarely singled out for how swiftly he moves things along, plot holes be damned), there is a lot to appreciate and even love about “Chappie.” It just would have been nice to see Blomkamp stretch himself as an artist and not return to so many familiar tropes. Maybe he needs a reboot. [B]