You know, even after three feature films I still can’t decide if Neill Blomkamp is actually a good director. From a conceptual level, he works wonders; the worlds he creates are rich and vibrant, and his 3D motion capture and visual work are second to none. The problem, however, is that significantly less consideration is afforded to how all those different pieces ought to fit together and, as far as his films are concerned, I’m kind of let down by how much the seams seem to show, as it were, as he tries to fit all the parts together.
I’d like to tell you that Chappie is a hard sci-fi exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and its implications in a quickly changing and increasingly modernized world—but I can’t, because that would be lying. The actual film is about a robot adopting a thuggish affectation and then shooting up other robots. So forgive me if I sound bitter, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been sold a lie here. Even the trailer boasted promises of uncommon substance, including a voice-over of the film’s title character proclaiming, “I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” Suffice it to say the reality of the situation is that what we ultimately got was a much shallower and garish production, unfortunately devoid of any real substance.
As I mentioned before, the 3D animation in all of Blomkamp’s films, not just Chappie, is unrivaled, owing chiefly to the fact that Blomkamp’s background before he entered the film industry was, in fact, animation. Much like Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, their backgrounds are in visual design, not writing, meaning that they generally have gorgeous-looking films that are riddled with plot holes and sloppy development. There are a lot of instances when the film just sort of glosses over the details only to move rapidly on to the next major point, hoping that the audience didn’t notice; and although I sometimes don’t mind the “artful dodge” technique (like in Looper, for example), in this instance it really took me out of the experience.
It seems strange, but in each of Blomkamp’s films, I can almost point to the exact moment when the story takes just slightly too large a leap, which ultimately ends up losing me. In District 9 it was the fact that the allegorical drama I’d been watching suddenly turned into an action movie apropos of nothing; In Elysium (probably my favorite of the three) it was the magi-technological wonder-machines that instantly repaired Sharlto Copley’s mangled neck-stump; and in Chappie, it was the inexplicable discovery of human consciousness uploading—mere days after the invention of a primitive AI, mind—that was somehow attained thanks to the computing power of, like, six PlayStation 4s stacked on top of one another.
In all honesty, the film’s ending devolves into narrative gibberish. It’s like listening to a five year-old kid recount his imaginary adventures during playtime. Any pretense of realism is dropped so that everything can be wrapped up in a neat, nice bow, which was a weird shift of tone that really threw me for a loop. Blomkamp is a fan of what you might call ‘soft’ sci-fi, and indeed, the science in Chappie is so soft that you could spread it on your toast and have it for breakfast.
Even without the more substantial plot elements and thematic exploration that I would have like to have seen, the film wasn’t all bad. The always-excellent Sharlto Copley does a lot of the mo-cap and voice action work for the character of Chappie, and to his and Blomkamps’s credit, it’s all pulled off beautifully. Likewise, it’s always a joy when you get to hear some genuine accents in a Hollywood movie, and Blomkamp’s dedication to his South African heritage is genuinely praiseworthy.
After having given it a bit of thought, I think I’d really like to see Blomkamp team up with someone like Dan O’Bannon, or with Ridely Scott to a lesser extent, to function in a sort of “ideas-man” capacity, much like George Lucas was the ideas-man during his collaborations with Stephen Spielberg. Either that, or Blomkamp really needs someone who can fill in the gaps that are missing in his stories, as well as the general world building.
Blomkamp’s movies are generally fun, and Chappie, at the very least, holds interest, but I was really quite disappointed that the film turned out to be just another slick, Hollywood action movie with the central conceit: hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a robot acted like a gangster?
Rating: 2.5 out of 5