To call District 9, the first feature from South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, a surprise when it was released back in 2009 would be a gross understatement.
Science fiction of its caliber had been absent from the blockbuster scene for quite a while, and it’s combination of white-knuckle action with a story driven by thoughtful commentary on South African apartheid wrapped in sci-fi allegory and a penchant for world-building made for a potent combination that even got the film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. It’s wild realizing that his 2006 short film Alive In Joburg came so far.
Not only did District 9 catapult Blomkamp to the top of the A-list of thinking person’s action movies (thanks in sizable part to producer Peter Jackson), it’s since proven to be a modern classic well-regarded enough by critics and audiences alike as to loom over the man’s still progressing career. He attempted to make that lightning strike twice with 2013’s Elysium, an allegory about immigration and class disparity that was a singular success but was seen as a down step from District 9 in that its characters weren’t as fleshed out as they could’ve been and that Blomkamp was more interested in crafting the world around them, which left us with a thrilling action flick that was slightly less thoughtful than before.
In a sense, Blomkamp’s latest release CHAPPiE seems like an extreme reaction to that criticism. Instead of complex characters running around a sprawling organic world, Blomkamp has made his most singular project yet, an intimate character study that draws inspiration from Pixar and RoboCop in equal measure. Like Blomkamp’s other films, CHAPPiE has ingenious ideas to spare and at its best is affectionately sincere, but the near abandonment of world-building and narrative seams beginning to show in his writing style keep it locked in the slightly above average bracket.
Our story: It’s the near future and Johannesburg, South Africa is under the watchful eye of new police robots called Scouts that have been cracking down on organized crime and have become a media spectacle in the eyes of the rest of the world. When Scout #022 is critically damaged in combat, the Scouts’ creator Deon (Dev Patal of Slumdog Millionaire fame) decides to use its body as a test for an artificial intelligence that he’s created; a system that can think, feel, and develop like human beings. He’s waylaid by a group of street toughs, played by South African rap rave group Die Antwoord (Watkin “Ninja” Jones, Yolandi Vi$$er) and Jose Cantillo, who want to use the bot in a multi-million dollar heist. Chappie (Sharlto Copley) becomes the artificial intelligence inside the body that they all attempt to raise the way they see fit. Deon also deals with Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a disgruntled co-worker whose ED-209-like police robots were shelved in favor of the Scouts, and the CEO of the company Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver).
First off, the ads are selling a different kind of film than what CHAPPiE turns out to be. The hardcore action and revolution aspects of the film are played up to an insane degree, whereas the core of the story revolves around Chappie and his upbringing. Blomkamp, co-writing with his wife Terri Tatchell, has never focused so intensively in one space before, but he does here, as we follow Chappie as he learns about the world, unwittingly learns how to fight (Ninja tells him he’s helping people go to sleep), and confronts his own mortality. The story mold (critically injured social misfit must race against time to complete task) is the same as in District 9 and Elysium, except now that our attention isn’t being diverted by world-building and action beats, Chappie’s story is all we have to focus on, and at its worst, it’s revealed to be illogical and crazy convoluted; every character who isn’t Chappie is sketched so broadly that their motivations and actions seems to have no rhyme or reason, which severely undercuts the story. There’s action to be had, but it’s all loaded into the very beginning and the very end, and Blomkamp’s shooting style is so gorgeous that the short bursts that are there will leave you wanting more.
Thankfully enough, the actors sell their roles like they’re going out of style. It must be said that even though they’re basically playing fictionalized versions of themselves, Die Antwoord handle themselves well enough. I’m still in shock that this movie amounts to what would happen if Die Antwoord raised a child in the ways of zef. Blomkamp was allegedly so intrigued by their personas that he’s wanted to work with them since Elysium, and that mystique is put to decent use here. Hugh Jackman keeps his charisma up as Moore, even if he amounts to little more than Milton from Office Space with more firepower at his disposal, and Dev Patal’s turn as Deon is reliable, but science fiction’s First Lady Sigourney Weaver does what she can, but can’t eclipse the fact that she’s cast in a thankless role as the CEO. Her part is so small.
Sharlto Copley is the star attraction as Chappie, however. He gives his all to an existential and emotional role that holds the film together, even as it tosses out great ideas that are never fully developed. Half-baked ideas and narrative issues hold CHAPPiE back from sci-fi greatness, but sleek visuals and affecting performances keep the atmosphere alive. Let’s hope that Blomkamp gives Sigourney more to do in the upcoming sequel to Aliens.
The film is now playing.
-Dylan “CineMasai” Green