With the sci-fi world still reeling from talk of his newly announced Alien-sequel, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that director Neil Blomkamp actually has a new film coming out.
Like its predecessors, 2009’s sleeper hit District 9 and the slick-but-soulless Elysium, Chappie aims to blend bold ideas with grand visuals as Blomkamp sets his sights on examining familiar themes of innocence, identity and authority in a futuristic world. But as was the case with his previous efforts, Blomkamp’s latest never quite finds a way to gel its complex ideas into a satisfying whole.
Returning to the near-future Johannesburg setting of his first feature, Blomkamp envisions a police force of AI droids built by weapons conglomerate Tetra Vaal that patrol the streets in a successful bid to quell the city’s spiralling crime rate.
Designer Deon (Dev Patel) has ambitions of pushing the boundaries of his technology even further and secretly pilfers a defunct droid to reprogram as the world’s first truly sentient AI, Chappie (Copley). But like Dr Frankenstein before him, Deon quickly comes to regret his decision when his creation is stolen by a gang of disco-tech criminals who need Chappie’s help to appease a volatile drug lord.
The bulk of the film is taken up with this Mary Shelley-aping story as Chappie is cruelly exposed to the brutality of a world he doesn’t yet fully understand. At its core this story is about the fight for Chappie’s soul between Yo-Landi and Deon, who want to protect and nurture the infantile robot, and Ninja, a desperate gangsta who wants to train Chappie to pull-off a high-stakes robbery that will get him out of a tight spot.
It’s a wrenching tale, largely because Chappie is such an endearing on-screen presence. Copley’s brilliant motion-captured performance combines well with the pivoting bars, bunny ears and LED display of Chappie’s design to evoke a huge depth of feeling that makes the betrayal and abuse he regularly suffers at the hands of humans all the more heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, this focus on Chappie’s arc pushes other interesting characters towards the sidelines with Hugh Jackman’s mullet-sporting engineer particularly underdeveloped. There are hints of a brilliant character within Jackman’s Vincent, a god-fearing former soldier who designs a formidable war machine to rival Deon’s droids, but his deeper motivations are never fully explored leaving us non-plussed as to why he is so vehemently against artificial intelligence.
Despite directing from a script he co-wrote with District 9-scribe Terri Tatchell, which is in part based on his 2004 short film Tetra Vaal, Blomkamp appears to be unsure about how to focus his many ideas. The film is a tonal miss-mash that swerves between moral fable, comedic heist movie and urban crime thriller as the director struggles to settle on the right style for his story.
By the time the third act rolls around, Blomkamp has totally lost the plot, unleashing all hell upon Johannesburg in a bizarrely explosive finale that sits awkwardly alongside the gritty realism of earlier scenes while incongruous plot twists also expose Blomkamp’s muddled plotting.
Like Elysium, then, Chappie is not the smart, satirically-biting sci-fi that Blomkamp clearly envisioned, but it has an endearingly human heart in the form of its robotic lead and plenty of bombastic action to make this an enjoyable slice of entertainment nevertheless.
Run time: 120 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 6 March 2015;
Director: Neill Blomkamp; Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell;
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Hugh Jackman
Click here to watch a trailer for Chappie