“Chappie” is unmistakably from the same mind that brought us the fantastic “District 9”. That mind belongs to South African director Neill Blomkamp, someone with a very distinctive voice who, in “Chappie”, struggles to say something coherent with it.
Blomkamp comes from a VFX background, and the visuals on all his films are great and very distinctive. His lo-fi, weathered technology reminds me of the refreshing appeal of the technology in the original “Star Wars” or “Alien”, but not as a reproduction of it, instead a unique depiction of its own. His worldbuilding is also strong, not quite as developed and nuanced as in “District 9”, but intriguing and developed enough. I also greatly enjoyed the controversial casting in “Chappie”; casting divisive rap-rave duo Die Antwoord as washed-up future versions of themselves is one of those utterly mad and utterly enjoyable left-field decisions. The thing that really holds the film back is the writing.
The writing is dreadfully unfocused. I’d love a film like this about a robot struggling to comprehend human morality. I’d love a film like this about a groundbreaking technology company torn between cost-effective reinforcement of the status quo, or visionary leaps into untested grounds. I’d love a film like this about a robot being raised by a group of wacky criminals in a darkly comic way. What I don’t love is a film that dips its toes into all those things – and more! – but never commits, and ends up tonally disparate and inconsistent as a result. The ending legitimately baffled me with how far out of the left-field it came; the film spent so much time and energy dedicated to the comic angle that such a hard swerve into socially conscious science-fiction felt extremely off-putting. The comic elements of the film worked really well (huge laughs at my screening in the car theft sequence), and there was glimmers of promise shown in the other angles too, but the film failed to capitalise properly on any of them.
The cast is a lot of fun. Dev Patel is solid as the lead, Sharlto Copley does fantastic reference work for Chappie’s CGI, and Hugh Jackman is legitimately hilarious as a pushy, ultra-masculine Australian weaponsman. I don’t know if his lines were as well-received in other countries as they were here in Australia, but they really did have me and the rest of the cinema laughing. Sigourney Weaver is a genre veteran but does little of note here. Die Antwoord are a highlight of the pulpy parts of the filmfilm, showcasing Blomkamp’s bizarre and highly original vision, and performing very believably (and humorously!) as extended versions of their showcased personas. Yolandi struggles a tad at times, with Blomkamp shouldering most of the film’s emotional content onto her, but overall does very well. Ninja is more troublesome; his line delivery is often strange and calls attention to itself. Might have been wiser to dial back his character a bit.
“Chappie” tries to say so much, about so many things, that it drowns itself out, but it’s undeniably unique, bizarre, and original, which is a rarity in this age of franchises. I think it’s ultimately a failure as a film, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying most of it, and admiring what was done. Blomkamp could have done much better, but this film most definitely does not commit the cardinal sin of its predecessor “Elysium” – being boring.
I give it three PS3s, and the Power Sword.