After District 9 the sky has been the limit for Neill Blomkamp. He seemed poised to be the next great director, having taken South African politics and meshed them with a science fiction template that wound up being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The sky was the limit for the director … and his next two efforts so far have made him look closer to being a poor man’s Michael Bay as opposed to what some thought could be the next Steven Spielberg. Chappie joins Elysium in being a brilliant technical marvel with profound story telling deficiencies.
Or in other words … Blomkamp is showing that he’s got more Bay in him than Spielberg. The only difference is that his films have the brilliant setups of an early Spielberg but with the execution of Bay, all bluster and no depth.
It’s an incredibly intriguing story. Deon (Dev Patel) is a brilliant scientist who has crafted a sentinel police scout that has lowered the sheer amount of violence in Johannesburg. He wants to eventually be able to put artificial intelligence into a robot and see what happens. Not everyone is happy, including a trigger happy scientist (Hugh Jackman) who wants his over the top violence machine to be used against the criminal underworld infesting his city. After being told not to by his boss (Sigourney Weaver), he decides to go out on his own with the intention of doing it.
Kidnapped by three hoodlums, Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), they want him to use his experiment for evil. Chappie (motion capture performance by Sharlito Copley, who also voices the CGI creation) is brought into the world by the four as a sentient robot with consciousness. Artificial intelligence is now created and Chappie has the function intelligence of a small child. The criminals want to use him in a major heist that will allow them to pay back underworld boss Hippo (Brandon Auret), against the wishes of Deon. He wants his creation to explore art and the creation of more peaceful things.
This is such an intriguing premise that is given short shrift or turned into comedic moments for huge swathes of the film. It’s such a drastic tonal change that the film doesn’t really recover from it. The big character building moments that are made to give us sympathy for Chappie, and his plight, wind up turning him more into a comedic foil than the genuinely interesting one he could be. Chappie is such a wildly intriguing character and the premise, of what artificial intelligence could look like, that the execution is so profoundly tone deaf that it makes you wonder where the brilliance of District 9 actually came from.
Blomkamp maintains his ability to use CGI and motion capture flawlessly. He and Bay do it better than anyone else and at this point one could almost say Blomkamp does it better because he does it on such a smaller scale. Chappie has to be realistic or else the film will fall flat on its face. At points it doesn’t feel like this is CGI and motion capture; Chappie feels real and that’s a credit to the people behind Blomkamp. There isn’t a point where we think Chappie is fake or a creation of a computer. He feels real and it’s a credit both Blomkamp and Copley for crafting the character.
For all the CGI brilliance, the film doesn’t have a genuine villain or end game. Jackman is turned into a villain, a poor one at that, at the end to give the film a final arc (and a requisite big action sequence). It’s also the wrong tone of villain for the film; it’s as if Blomkamp lifted a villain from a comic book film and just dropped him into this for no real reason.
The film’s premise of what would a sentient creature would do in society is such an interesting one that the film trying to either be a comedy, or a big action film, feels so profoundly out of place. The film’s more interesting moments are when Chappie is exploring the world, like a big child, and trying to figure out what he is. Yet this is often short shrift to either comedy bits or the big action sequence at the end.
Chappie feels like it should be a brilliant sci-fi film about the nature of artificial intelligence, and what it could mean, and adds in big action sequences and comedy for the commercial factor and not the story-telling factor.
Director: Neill Blomkamp Writer: Neil Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell Notable Cast: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sharlto Copley, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.