South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp hit the international scene with his 2009 feature debut, District 9. The film, a hard look at the racism and segregation that is still rampant in the director’s home country through the lens of science fiction, was a financial and critical success, even garnering four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Blomkamp would follow this up with 2013’s Elysium, a look at the haves and the have nots in a semi-Dystopian future world.
While District 9 was a sharp-witted, brilliantly executed take on xenophobia, using aliens (the actual outer space kind) as stand-ins for the victims of Apartheid, Elysium was yet another in a long line of bland and superficial mainstream moviemaking. As edgy as Blomkamp’s first was, his second was equally as pedestrian. Now cut to the present and the director’s third film, Chappie; the movie, another futuristic take on the sociopolitical landscape of South Africa, ends up somewhere in the middle of the previous two films quality-wise, but sadly leans a bit more toward the meandering middlings of Elysium.
The film is set in a decade or so in the future, and shows how the rampant crime in Joahannesburg, South Africa has led to a robotic police force. These RoboCops (yeah, that’s right) are manufactured by the weapons manufacturing company Tetravaal, where Deon, a young program designer, played by Slumdog Millionaire himself, Dev Patel, is on the verge of creating an actual artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, a trio of wouldbe thugs find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and have just a week to come up with the money they owe to a local gangster. These two worlds collide when the desperate thugs kidnap Deon and force him to bring his A.I. to life in the form of a wrecked police robot set for destruction. And thus is born Chappie.
From here, the film goes along pretty much just as you would expect it to go. Chappie, voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley (he was also Howling Mad Murdock in that rather forgettable A-Team movie from a few years back), learns the harsh ways of the world as if he were a baby, but at an extremely accelerated rate, of course. We get a bad guy, not in the aforementioned wouldbe thugs, but in the form of an ex-military, fellow engineer played with a stoic madness by Hugh Jackman, who will eventually force Chappie and his crew into a no holds barred showdown near film’s end. This is not meant as a spoiler, since it can be seen coming the proverbial mile away.
What the film does have going for it though, is its heart. Yes, it is again a quite obvious narrative trajectory the film takes in letting Chappie win over his kidnappers, two of which he takes to calling mommy and daddy. The performances of Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er, members of the South African rap-rave band Die Antwoord, as Mommy & Daddy, are quite spectacular, especially considering neither has any acting experience. The former real life couple are actually the highlight of the film, and it is in the scenes between them and Chappie, along with America, the third member of the gang, played by American actor Jose Pablo Cantillo (Martinez from The Walking Dead!), that the film shines.
When the outside forces enter, those of Jackman’s jack-booted stereotype and Sigourney Weaver’s arms manufacturer (a role the great actress is wasted in as she never really has anything to do other than an occasional scowl for dramatic effect), the film loses the only thing it has going for it. Sadly, that is the majority of the film. And also sadly, it is becoming increasingly worrisome that Blomkamp is perhaps just a one trick pony. His next film will be a new Alien film, so here’s hoping he can get things back on track by then.
2.5 stars out of 5.