It’s looking increasingly like South African-born director-writer, Neill Blomkamp, might be a one-hit wonder. His first film, the politically-nuanced sci fi District 9, took the world by storm, being both a hit at the box office and gaining critical acclaim.
His follow-up, Elysium, was the complete opposite – a flop in every way imaginable (and that’s putting it kindly).
Chappie, Blomkamp’s third dystopian science fiction film, falls somewhere between these two, lukewarm and tepid compared to the originality and creativity that made District 9 so entrancing.
Like Disctrict 9, Chappie is set in a dystopian South Africa. Johannesburg is presented as a slightly clichéd gangster’s paradise, in which the squalor that was Hillbrow a decade ago, has infected the entire city.
To solve the crime problem, droids are created to police the city à la iRobot and Robocop. But lead designer for these “scouts”, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), wants to take it a step further. He believes he can create a robot that is true artificial intelligence: a sentient being that is able to feel, to think for itself, to have that thing humans pride themselves on, consciousness. Once he perfects the ability to ‘create’ consciousness, he saves a beaten up robot from becoming scrap and so, “Chappie” is born.
The robot is hijacked by gangsters, Ninja and Yolandi Visser (of Die Antwoord infamy), who play themselves (they even keep their names in the film). They want to use Chappie for a cash-in-transit robbery.
At first this sentient robot is like a child, or a pet. He has to learn language and thought patterns until he can develop his own opinions and make independent decisions. The effects used to create Chappie are interesting. Instead of adding the robot aesthetics after filming, actor Sharlto Copley donned a robot suit, giving the machine very “human” movements. The effect is spoiled however, by Blomkamp’s decision to have Chappie mimic the distracting zef-Afrikaans accent and call Ninja and Yolandi “daddy” and “mommy”.
Ninja is hell-bent on teaching Chappie how to kill, while his maker, Deon, tries to instil ‘values’ in the robot, such forbidding him to commit crime and telling him he can be anything he wants to (remember your mom telling you that when you were eight?). All the while, Chappie and Deon are being hunted down by an overzealous colleague, Vincent Moore (played by Hugh Jackman). The latter believes that giving a machine consciousness, is immoral, and he’ll do anything to stop it.
The story is haphazard and unfocused, with various sub-plots involving gangsters to whom Ninja owes money, Yolandi’s apparent desire to be a mother, Moore’s jealousy of Deon, and his plan for revenge…
Chappie had the potential to become an interesting platform for asking Cartesian questions about what it means to be human. If you can think independently, does it mean you are, in fact, real or human? The inherent contradiction in plans to ‘create’ and ‘transfer’ consciousness are skirted over. The film becomes one long piece of action scene upon boring, hackneyed action scene.
Touching moments, like Chappie’s encounter with a stray dog, become lost in the contrivance. There is a scene in which Yolandi reads Chappie a story about a black sheep. She tells Chappie that what makes him special, is that he has a soul that will go to “another place” when he “dies”. The moment borders on tenderness, but falls short when shortly after, Ninja tries to teach Chappie to “walk like a gangster” and be “cool”. Is Blomkamp trying to be funny? Is he trying to make you choke up?
Yolandi and Ninja’s acting feels forced and inauthentic. Who knows, perhaps they are like that off-screen. After all, they ‘live’ their musical personas to the point where they managed to infuriate everyone from the director, to the international cast members (I’ve independently confirmed that all involved have vowed never to work with the duo again).
Sci fi queen, Sigourney Weaver, can count herself lucky that her role as the head of the company, which manufactures the droids, is a small one. Hugh Jackman plays the role of the anti-A.I. maniac well, and is one of the film’s redeeming figures. There should be some sympathy for Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) who really is a stellar actor, caught in a messy, schizophrenic production.
The film also seems to be one big advertisement for Die Antwoord. Not only are Yolandi and Ninja, Yolandi and Ninja, but everything from the graffiti, to their clothing and of course the soundtrack, is Die Antwoord. Their involvement in this movie is probably its biggest downfall.
Rating: 2½ out of 5
Cast: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Neil Blomkamp
Local release date: 13 March 2015