Neil Blomkamp’s third feature Chappie is a strange sort of film. Not actually bad but overly rushed and full of plot holes.
Over the years Blomkamp has created a signature style of placing science-fiction elements into dystopias of the near future. Almost all of his futures look the same though and seem to take place in alternate versions of Johannesburg, South Africa. While it may have been an original and refreshing location in District 9, his first feature, by his third it is starting to feel a little old.
The movie itself deals with artificial intelligence and the nature of the soul. The problem is that instead of focusing on Chappie, the former police robot that has been gifted consciousness by an engineer named Deon (Dev Patel), the movie spends much of its time setting up a one-note villain (a criminally underutilized Hugh Jackman).
There’s genius in the script it just needs to have a clear idea of what it wants to say. Jackman’s Vincent Moore seems to have been created because every story needs a villain, even if their goals aren’t totally clear. Moore is jealous of Deon because his AI scouts have been so successful while his Moose (basically the ED-209 from Robocop with a new paint job) is underfunded. To get revenge he goes after Deon and his robots and causes chaos throughout Johannesburg. In another movie that could have been a great plot, that movie is Robocop.
Chappie deals with some pretty big issues like what it means to have a soul but doesn’t seem to have any intention of ever exploring them. Instead we once again see the ghetto of future South Africa, this time through the eyes of a small band of gangsters played by Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yoladi, who don’t even bother to change names). Of the two only Yolandi seems to have any kind of character arc, happily taking on the role of mother for Chappie.
It should be noted that Die Antwoord manage to seriously break the fourth wall on multiple occasions by wearing their own band’s t-shirt (with their names written clearly on it for all to see) in the movie. At one point Yolandi can be seen wearing a Chappie t-shirt as well. Was Blomkamp worried people would get bored so he decided to slip an advertisement in during the movie? It’s baffling.
The ending is where the film shines as it takes a sharp turn in a totally different direction. Unfortunately it’s not only too little too late but even more underwhelming when you realize it’s pretty much the same ending he gave District 9 but with a new spin.
Blomkamp is a talented writer and director but it seems he’s written himself into a creative wall. Hopefully by helming the new Alien movies it will give him the creative freedom he needs to break new ground. Given the chance he could be truly innovative, he just needs to find his groove again.