Chappie is a step up from Neil Blomkamp’s depressingly not good Elysium, but is still a far cry from the great District 9. I wasn’t surprised that Blomkamp went to back to his District 9 roots with Chappie, but was caught off guard at how similar it is to his first film. It starts off as a faux-documentary, is set in Johannesburg, digs into the battle between the state and the lowest class of the city, revels in the grimiest parts of the city, has a big mech suit in the finale, and there is a special effect seamlessly integrated into every shot. This didn’t bother me, especially for a storyteller who likes to pick at and play with big sci-fi ideas, but it’s kind of crazy he would borrow so heavily from his own film that is barely five years old.
But enough about Blomkamp’s connections to his own work, how is Chappie? Chappie is fine. It’s entertaining, and I wasn’t ever really bored while watching the movie. Part of this might be because I was thinking about how I wish they would explore this idea more after almost every idea Blomkamp introduces is quickly thrown away. This film deals with AI robot police, sentient AI, mech defense systems, consciousness transcendence, the consequence of giving ourselves over to an automated system, the pervasive nature of our desire to violence, drone warfare; like I said, there is a lot in this thing. But the script barely stops to explore any of these ideas, they are all basically used as plot devices. I appreciate not having scene after scene of exposition dumps, but a visualist like Blomkamp, you would think, could explore these ideas to a bit more substantive level. The pieces can all be loosely connected in this film, but a bit more here and there might have really fleshed out all of these ideas Blomkamp is interested in.
The one idea the film does give itself over to is the idea of what happens if you nurture a mind to either good or evil, and while this is still fairly surface level the dichotomy of seeing Chappie learn about the world was compelling. The “bad” has much more of an influence over Chappie’s life, but the manipulation of naivety is something that I am a sucker for and Chappie is a fully realized character that we can feel for; the only one in the film actually. I have always enjoyed Sharlto Copley, ever since he burst on the scene in District 9, and he does a great job of playing the immature Chappie and making him feel real. Copley, and the animators who painted over him, make Chappie a nuanced character that is fully expressive and alive unlike most everyone else in the film.
The cast is a bit of a let down. The rapper duo of Die Attenwood might be the most untrained actors of the bunch, and you can tell, but I kind of liked them the most out of the cast. At least they are having fun, with Ninja clearly having the best time out of anyone. Hugh Jackman’s Vincent isn’t the greatest written character, he’s your stereotypical villain here, and Jackman doesn’t get a whole lot to do, nor does he elevate the material. Ditto for Sigourney Weaver. Dev Patel was fine as Chappie’s maker I guess, but I have never liked him and he didn’t gain any fans after watching this.
Blomkamp’s action beats are a step up from Elysium, but again he is chasing the greatness of that District 9 finally. I don’t get how Blomkamp can’t capitalize on these higher budgeted films to finally top himself, but outside the mech suit being able to fly around, there isn’t anything terribly innovative going on with the action here. It all looks nice and is competently put together, but the film is actually fairly light on the action when it’s all said and done. There are only a couple of set pieces, and I did appreciate that the finale of the film was exploring a sci-fi idea and not just trying to make explosions, but it all goes by so fast we don’t get a lot of time to think or appreciate said moments.
Chappie is a watchable sci-fi romp, with a fine performance by Sharlto Copley at its heart, but Blomkamp is stuck living in that District 9 shadow. Blomkamp set a high bar for himself with his feature debut, and while I think Chappie is an improvement from his last film we still want more from him. Is that fair? Not really, but, sadly, it’s true.