Tommy Anderson | Thursday, March 19, 2015
Having rather high expectations walking into “Chappie,” I was disappointed with Neill Blomkamp’s work. Over the past several years, South African director Blomkamp has emerged as a promising young director, most notably with 2009’s social segregation commentary and horror film “District 9.” More recently Blomkamp wrote, produced and directed 2013’s dystopian “Elysium,” which sadly seemed less Blomkamp and far more forced into Hollywood’s science fiction formula. I had hoped Blomkamp might have fed off of earlier inspiration and crawled back to his inventive originality given his newfound American following and financial investment, but unfortunately “Chappie” marks the second notch in a declining career.
The film follows an obsessive computer programmer, who works for a large robotics corporation, after he creates a robot that starts to replace the police in Johannesburg, South Africa. The programmer feels creatively abandoned by his boss after she denies an update that he developed that gives the robots a consciousness, so he takes a robot labeled for destruction and inserts this program. Thus an impressionable robot named Chappie is born, who can learn like a human and make jokes. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? With so much quickly built up potential, there seemed little reason to expect disappointment. However, after Chappie is kidnapped the next hour and a half seems little more than a contractually made music video for South Africa’s rave-rap ground Die Antwoord. I appreciate Blomkamp’s attempt to mesh first time actors like the members of Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Visser) and well established actors such as Hugh Jackman, but this combination was very one-sided on the part of Die Antwoord and prevented the story from being taken seriously.
I was surely entertained but disappointed with the film until the final 10 minutes, where Blomkamp drops an existential, thought-provoking social commentary about the separation of body and soul. Without spoiling too much, I can say I was willing to sit in the theater for another hour to see this play out, but to my dismay the credits soon rolled.
Blomkamp does a fantastic job making his films visually alluring. The robots contain very little CGI, which is very evident with his beautiful matte black robots that move very realistically and display all their moving parts, much like a clear watch.
Typical of Blomkamp’s work, the setting is the underbelly of a near future society which is dirty, depressing and a place where every man is for himself. Unsuccessfully, Blomkamp tried to make three amoral criminals into sympathetic characters, which backfired when Chappie sank down to their level. From there Chappie leaves our circle of sympathies and becomes a criminal, and it does not help that Chappie spends most of the movie concerned about his own survival rather than using his programmed humanity for something positive. The way Chappie is placed under the wings and raised by Ninja and Visser seems to parody the importance of positively influencing their children, but again the story is very unclear. It seems as though too many important discussions start, but then get lost when explosions and riots start destroying Johannesburg; mixed messages abound.
I still recommend seeing the film, if not for the entertainment then just for the final 10 minutes. But be prepared to put up with an hour and a half of head throbbing music and characters with outlandish haircuts.