After the huge critical and commercial success of his debut, District 9 (2009), Neill Blomkamp bumped back to earth with the misfiring Elysium (2013). So would his third film prove Blomkamp to be a 'visionary genius', as many had rushed to label him after District 9, or has he already used up his cinematic box of tricks? The answer, frustratingly, is still somewhat hazy, and probably won't fully be resolved until after his Alien film, but for now it seems to be a bit of both.
It perhaps doesn't help matters that Chappie feels much more like a deliberate shift back to the look and feel of District 9, inviting immediate and largely unfavourable comparisons. Much like District 9, this starts almost as a documentary, with newsreel footage setting up the premise – a near future Johannesburg is in turmoil and robot police have been deployed, successfully, to keep the real red rain off the streets. Again, much like that film, that approach is dropped almost immediately in favour of a simple narrative. Ultimately, like District 9, Chappie becomes a story about the transformation of an innocent and what it is to be human, with the odd hardcore, ultra violent action scene thrown in for good measure.
As with District 9, that innocent is played by Blomkamp's regular cohort Sharlto Copley, here adding his voice and motion capture performance to the ever chirpy Chappie. Copley's infantile artificial intelligence is a captivating creation. Believably youthful with the mind and mannerisms of a child, Chappie is a triumph of visual effects. The ever impressive WETA Digital (Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes) mining a surprising depth of feeling from a couple of pivoting bars, bunny like ears and an LED display. Brilliantly animated, Copley's Chappie blends almost seamlessly with the real world environment. His goofy childlike charm though occasionally feels overtly child friendly, suggesting a softer certificate might have potentially played to its strengths – the heavy handed Pinocchio story never quite meshes with the darker subplots and third act bloodletting.
Along with the idea of what it is to be human, and the concept of consciousness as something that can be built and uploaded/downloaded as and when necessary (echoing quite a few of this year's big movies, from Alex Garland's Ex Machina to the forthcoming Avengers: Age Of Ultron), Blomkamp also tackles the idea of nature versus nurture, and asking whether being a good person is something that is inherent, or can be learned, like any skill. To do this, Blomkamp places Chappie at the centre of a battle for what some might consider his soul. On one side, his peaceable, likeable creator, Deon (Dev Patel), who wants Chappie to learn about art and culture, nurturing his creativity. On the other, the aggressive South African underground group, Die Antwoord.
Effectively playing a near future, down on their luck version of themselves as hardened criminals, who see Chappie as their key to pulling off a major heist, the duo – Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser – start teaching Chappie how to be a criminal, giving him gangster bling, teaching him how to hijack cars (in one of the film's funniest sequences), and imparting swear words he can't quite get his head around ("Fuck mother" becomes his catchphrase). It's a very clear family dynamic, with Deon as the benign father, Yo-Landi as the loving mother, and Ninja as the alcoholic reprobate uncle, determined to drag his nephew off the rails. The problem is that Die Antwood – Ninja in particular – are vile and incredibly stupid. At one point Ninja, who has pinned all his hopes on Chappie, abandons him in the Johannesburg badlands as a test of his manhood, without considering for one minute that he might not make it back.
Of course, not all movie characters have to be likeable, or even relatable. Just look at Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) for proof of concept. But they at least have to be interesting, and Die Antwood fail in that department. Neither are their acting skills up to standard, so when they have to do the emotional heavy lifting in the third act, it immediately loses the necessary heft. Simply put, they are not the answer.
Still, it is somewhat refreshing in this cookie cutter age to see a director who has the guts to make such risky decisions, and there are more than enough enjoyable and impactful moments when the Blomkamp of District 9 reveals himself. It's certainly more fun than the murky Elysium, for example, from little visual flourishes (Die Antwoord's heavy duty firearms are candy coloured) to big, bruising action set pieces, including an impressive third act showdown that might make you wish Blomkamp had directed last years RoboCop remake. And then there's Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine), clearly relishing playing against type as the film's main villain, a bemulleted, shorts wearing Aussie alpha male who sees Chappie as an affront to God. When Jackman's on screen, pulling a gun in the middle of a crowded office or bellowing Aussie swear words while blowing people away, the film feels a little less robotic and a little more human.
While Chappie doesn't quite reach the explosive highs of District 9, Blomkamp's third movie has just about enough spectacle and quirk to overcome some fairly major flaws, not least of which are the unappealing Die Antwood duo.