“The problem with me is I get so caught up in concepts and ideas,” said filmmaker Neill Blomkamp in a recent interview. The writer-director’s latest film, Chappie, also gets caught up in concepts and ideas, and like Blomkamp’s previous effort, Elysium, it falls short on story as a result, albeit to a lesser extent. Blomkamp has made a kids film for adults, but not in the sense of creating childlike wonder and nostalgia. Rather, he has wrapped up old lessons in an R-rated milieu of crime and violence. While the movie cribs from better films as well as Blomkamp’s limited filmography, it still manages to be a fairly enjoyable time thanks to its endearing title character. Sadly, the picture is ultimately a frustrating experience as the director begins to reach for his most interesting ideas just as the story is coming to a close.
In 2016, crime in Johannesburg has become rampant, and the solution to stopping it comes from creating police robots. Their creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has been privately working on an advanced A.I. that will provide a machine with emotions. He decides to test it on a broken police droid, but just as he’s getting ready to put together his experiment, he’s kidnapped by desperate criminals Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). They want to pull a heist and need Deon to shut off all the robots, but Deon explains that’s impossible. The criminals decide to do the next best thing and let Deon proceed with his experiment, which creates a sentient robot that Yolandi dubs, “Chappie” (Sharlto Copley). Ninja wants to use Chappie as part of the heist while Yolandi and Deon want the childlike machine to find his own way. Meanwhile, Deon’s nefarious rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is trying to get the company to back his tactical warfare machine, ED-209 The Moose, and sees the police bots as his primary obstacle.
One-dimensional characters like Vincent betray Chappie as a movie that may feint at big ideas, but its messages should be familiar to anyone over the age of ten. When Yolandi—Chappie’s surrogate mother—tells him that it’s what on the inside that counts, that’s a message we tell to children, which makes sense for the character since Chappie behaves like a child. When Hogarth tells the Iron Giant in The Iron Giant, “You are who you to choose to be,” it’s the same kind of direct statement, but Brad Bird’s 1999 animated film is intended to children (it affects adults because the execution is so perfect). Blomkamp largely shies away from asking his adult audience tough questions regarding human nature, and instead focuses on Chappie’s amusing behavior like imitating a cartoonish version of gangsters.
The façade of Chappie sometimes works to its favor since it’s an incredibly colorful film right down to Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika having pink and yellow firearms. They’re parent figures to Chappie, and yet they’re just as childish in their own way. Similarly, Vincent is written as a generic bad guy, but we manage to care about him because Jackman is clearly having a blast playing the part. Blomkamp tries to strike a balance between the grittiness of Johannesburg and an exaggerated world, and while he’s not always successful, the movie has a unique energy that gives it some sorely needed differentiation from his previous work, Elysium and District 9.
Blomkamp may pride himself on his concepts, but Chappie shows he’s married to a particular character arc. He starts with a marginalized, self-involved drone (Wikus, Max, Chappie). The drone takes irreparable damage in the course of his daily duties (sprayed with alien chemicals; pelted with radiation; taking a rocket to the chest that fuses his battery with his chassis). The drone—who is on an abbreviated timeline due to his injury—seeks a way to survive, which usually involves inflicting violence against a heartless organization. The drone also undergoes a physical transformation (becoming an alien; taking on an exoskeleton; being spray-painted and tricked out). The endings of District 9 and Chappie also have similarities, but I won’t spoil those here.
That’s not to say Chappie is a rip-off of Blomkamp’s previous movies, and although it also borrows liberally from RoboCop and Short Circuit, it does have a distinct pulse thanks to Copley’s moving performance and Hans Zimmer‘s terrific score. Everything that’s emotionally touching in the movie comes from Chappie. Although he can learn quickly, he maintains the emotions of a child, and so it’s delightful to see him play around and heartbreaking to watch him suffer abuse. One of the saddest scenes I’m sure I’ll see this year is Chappie trying to understand why people are attacking him, and begging them to stop. Chappie’s design is wonderful, and the special and visual effects teams do an outstanding job making him feel real.
So it’s a shame that the reality doesn’t lead up to anything bigger than a boss fight. The film almost begins to explore the relationship between a creator and his creation, but it instead opts for deus ex machinas that come off as comic (Chappie—due to its immense earnestness as well as its awkward product placement for Sony devices—occasionally gets unintentional laughs). And because these ideas come so late in the film, they remain just that: ideas. Like Elysium, Blomkamp loses sight of the story, which wasn’t all that deep to begin with.
I imagine the backlash against Neill Blomkamp will become even more intense following Chappie since District 9 looks more like the exception than the rule. He’s like Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) or Tarsem (Immortals) except with grittier visuals and a little bit of effort towards creating thoughtful subtext. It may be what’s on the inside that counts, but Chappie shows that Blomkamp is more interested in what’s on the surface.