Director Neill Blomkamp quickly established himself as a talented visual director with a knack for original science fiction with his first film, District 9. That film, and the concepts for follow-ups Elysium and Chappie, have been intriguing enough to lead to Blomkamp getting the chance to relaunch the Alien franchise with star Sigourney Weaver. But if Elysium and now Chappie have proven anything, it’s that Blomkamp is a director and writer who desperately needs a collaborator to keep his many ideas in check. That inability to edit results in Chappie‘s single biggest problem: it introduces far too many ideas to handle any of them with the amount of time necessary to make something truly interesting.
Chappie is set in an unspecified near-future in South Africa, where crime in Johannesburg is kept in check by a mechanized police force of units known as Chappies, manufactured by Tetravaal. Their creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has created a new A.I. that more closely resembles human behavior, but is rebuffed by his boss, Michelle Bradley, (Sigourney Weaver) when he attempts to test the A.I. on a droid. After taking a broken robot with the plan of covertly testing the A.I., he’s kidnapped by criminals Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who want him to shut off the robots while they pull off a heist. When Deon explains that he can’t shut off the robots, they let Deon test his experiment and keep the robot, named Chappie (Sharlto Copley). Ninja plans to use Chappie to help with their heist, while Deon wants Chappie to grow naturally. Their plans collide with Deon’s workplace rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who wants the company to restore funding to his machine, the Moose, in place of Deon’s more successful robots.
The synopsis above would be enough to create a very specific story, but Blomkamp adds in elements to the story and character that make Chappie unwieldy as a project. There’s the growth of Chappie as a character, who starts off with a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder. He refers to Ninja and Yolandi as “Daddy” and “Mommy,” and they treat him like their child. Deon, meanwhile, is called “Maker” by Chappie, and the meaning takes on a religious tone that’s noteworthy in a film filled with various nods to religion. While his specific beliefs aren’t quite elaborated, Vincent is obviously religious, and he argues at one point that artificial A.I. like Chappie’s is against God’s will. At another point, when Chappie is hit during a shootout, it’s revealed that his damaged battery is fused to his body. He questions this manufacturing decision, asking Deon, “Why did you make me so I would die?” Deon gives a non-answer before quickly moving on.
Elements like this are frustrating, because with some pruning of the various concepts Blomkamp introduces, and some expounding on the more intriguing concepts, Chappie could be a far more interesting film than it is, ultimately. And the potential for a better film is here. Copley’s been a frequent collaborator with Blomkamp, and for all the film’s faults, the work Copley and the film’s visual effects team do bringing Chappie to life is not one of them. Chappie looks and feels like he’s actually on the various sets with the actors, and not just the result of motion-capture. The robot looks realistically weathered, and acts like a mix of robotic and human tendencies. Chappie is by far the most interesting character in the film, and the film is stronger when he’s on screen, whether by himself or with others. Focusing on Chappie during his arc gives the film its narrative spine, and maintaining that focus would have made for a stronger film.
But instead, we get too much of the little idiosyncratic pieces Blomkamp wants. One of the most distracting is the presence of Ninja and Yolandi, members of South African band Die Antwoord who are playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves. Their music fills the soundtrack, and their band name appears on apparel during the film. They’re certainly colorful elements in the film, but the film is just a bit too interested in Ninja and Yolandi, at the expense of other characters who are less interesting but more important to the film’s overall narrative, like Deon and Vincent. And while Dev Patel is pretty much the same here as he is in any other film, Hugh Jackman is clearly relishing playing the villain here. The film could use more of Jackman’s scene-chewing.
To give Blomkamp deserved credit, he’s created a distinctive world with Chappie. The visuals are outstanding, and the choice to set the film in South Africa creates a world that would likely be more bland if set in, say, the U.S. or Europe. But with Blomkamp already lining up his next big project in a series that’s been both rewarding and punishing to distinctive visual helmers, Chappie is proof that he needs to tighten the reins if he wants to be compared to Ridley Scott and James Cameron, as opposed to David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.