Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is all style, no substance.
South African director Neill Blomkamp was hailed as a wunderkind when in 2009 his first feature film District 9 was met with universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, Blomkamp’s debut made immediate waves with its impressively bleak and burnt out visuals and fresh take on Alien invaders. This was followed by Elysium, a commercial and critical success that many felt was a step down from his earlier success, and left people anxiously waiting to see Blomkamp return to form.
Sadly, Chappie is not the film Blomkamp’s disciples have been hoping for; it’s a confusing mesh of an incredulous plot, bizarre characters and a surprising lack of humanity in a film in which the concept plays a central role.
Chappie tells the story of Chappie, a robot with artificial intelligence created in secret by the developer of Johannesburg’s new robotic police force, Dion, played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. Chappie is then kidnapped by a gang of criminals played by South African rap group Die Antwoord, whose members Ninja and Yolandi Visser play themselves. Yes, seriously.
The characters have the same names and wear nothing but their own band merchandise. It’s jarring to see these stage personas presented as real characters, and while Yolandi does seem to eventually fit into her motherly role, Ninja is madcap throughout the entire film making it difficult to enjoy Chappie if you’re not a Die Antwoord fan.
The cast is rounded off by Sigourney Weaver performance as the not so evil CEO and Hugh Jackman in a breathtakingly over-the-top performance as an Australian weapons designer.
With such a brash and colourful cast it’s a shame that the film struggles to make any of the characters appear compelling. They’re all plagued by confusing motivations which lead them to make idiotic conclusions. The film’s shaky introduction and downright insane character relationships make it nearly impossible to connect with. There’s just too many strange decisions made in the film for it to hold any coherence and a lot of the confusing circumstances are only included so Blomkamp could add a few comedic scenes, which while amusing at first, tend to make the films tone drastically shift in the second half.
As with Blomkamp’s other films, Chappie has a distinctly unique visual style, characterised by blending District 9‘s bleak and broken empty concrete sets with splashes of bright pastel colours which do wonders in holding your attention throughout the films slower points.
The costuming has to be praised for its cartoonish style, especially Ninja and Yolandi’s bizarre clothing and hairstyle choices. Hugh Jackman was dressed as what one can only describe as a bizarro Steve Irwin. His mainstay uniform consists of a polo shirt, khaki shorts with a gun belt and knee-high socks paired with combat boots. Topped off with one of the most subtle mullets in film history, Jackman is one of the more, if not the most, enjoyable characters in the film.
The design and computer imaging of Chappie and the other robots is breathtaking, especially during Chappie’s seamless physical interactions with the human actors. Longtime Blomkamp-collaborator Charlito Copley does double duty, both voicing and doing motion capture for Chappie. He excels at both, even with the weak writing he has to work with for most of his screen time.
The look and feel of the humanoid robots is great and it shows how much effort was put into the design elements of the film, even if the film’s other featured robot feels like a rejected prototype of Robocop‘s ED-209. The soundtrack is compelling, using a strange blend of Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score with Die Antwoord’s hardcore rap, which makes for an interesting listen.
Technical prowess aside, Chappie is a failed opportunity in too many ways. Oddly written characters with downright unfathomable motivations make Chappie a heartfelt tale that lacks a heart. Definitely check it out if you enjoyed District 9, but don’t hold your breath waiting for a satisfying follow-up, as Chappie just isn’t it. – Joseph Papandrea
Top photo from Columbia Pictures