Neill Blomkamp deals in immediacy. His films have a kinetic energy that’s easy to get swept up in. And as a visual artist he has a keen eye for the striking and the bombastic. It makes his sci-fi adventures loud and garish… if not subtle, original or particularly any good. With Blomkamp, it’s a case of all-ketchup, no burger.
I’m one of the eight card-carrying people on the planet that didn’t love District 9. While I absolutely agree that the visual effects are superb, it’s a messy film with a loathsome and cripplingly unsympathetic lead character that hangs together for a while before crashing out in a third act of dumbed-down gunporn and explosions. Nevertheless, bolstered by the then-reputable name of Peter Jackson, it became a hit and Blomkamp was established. His follow-up Elysium I rather enjoyed on first approach in the cinema, where it’s brash 80’s style ultra-violence made pleasing connections to movies I grew up with (at the time I award it a generous 4/5). However, subsequent viewings have tarnished that initial superficial satisfaction considerably as narrative wormholes, Matt Damon’s dullard lead and that third-act cacophony prove far less giving. Don’t get me started on the news of his Alien takeover.
Nevertheless, putting all of this aside, I was pretty keen on the idea of Chappie, finding its trailer appealing, especially as it triggered further connections to movies from my youth. Only this time instead of the adrenaline pumped sci-fi excess of Total Recall, it was the softer, more openly-sentimental fragrance of E.T. or Short Circuit that came wafting my way. A Spielbergian charm that I was more than happy for Blomkamp to try to capture. Happy to meet Chappie on its own merits, I put aside my general wariness of Blomkamp’s work and dove right in.
Primarily when dealing with Chappie, the tale of a police robot given sentience by its creator Dion (Dev Patel) and raised in a Johannesburg ghetto by street gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (Die Antwoord), there are 4 key questions you have to ask yourself.
1) How keen are you on Blomkamp’s previous form?
2) How endearing do you find children who are perpetually asking you questions?
3) How much do you care about gigantic glaring plot holes?
4) How much plagiarism are you willing to swallow?
If your answer to question 1 is very keen, then Chappie will probably work fairly well for you, as it follows to the letter the structure previously laid out. Presumably licking his wounds from the muted reception to Elysium, Blomkamp has shuffled right back to the basic framework of District 9, bracketing his film with mock-documentary footage used to info-dump his audience. And, yet again, for all the diversions laid out in the middle of the picture, you’re heading toward a punishing bullet-fuelled finale. People get blasted through the air. Stuff blows up. Walls get knocked down. Probably better than previously.
If your answer to question 2 is very endearing, then again you’re probably going to have an OK time here too. When Chappie is activated it is stressed somewhat laboriously that ‘he’ has the temperament of a child. It makes him pretty cute actually, and the (ripped-off) design is surprisingly emotive. Sharlto Kopley’s motion capture performance is part frightened animal, part showboating toddler. And, as ever with Blomkamp, the effects work is impeccable. Chappie slots into his surroundings perfectly. That naggingly inquisitive temperament may get on some people’s nerves. Personally, I warmed to this character pretty well.
On to question 3. If you answered positively to the first 2 questions, then you’ll likely be enjoying the movie, and will be willing to overlook the holes in the narrative logic and some of the bizarre character swerves that Blomklamp employs to keep his story rolling in the direction he wants it to. By extension you’ll likely be less inclined to mind the rather conspicuous amount of product placement here (hello Sony and Red Bull, I’m sure you’re both pretty happy with how this turned out).
And then question 4. There’s homage and then there’s outright theft. While its plot seemingly expands exponentially that one scene from Short Circuit 2 where Johnny 5 encounters a street gang who give him a mohawk, there are other quite staggering nods to other people’s work. The police robots themselves are a wholesale mix of the ones previously scene in anime classics Appleseed and Patlabor, while Hugh Jackman’s one-note rival engineer presumably spends his days off relentlessly watching Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop; his alternate design is ED-209 but with a jet pack. Jackman’s generic bad guy controls it via neural interface, as if it’s one of those bodies jacked by Sam Worthington in Avatar. While the overall feel, as previously mentioned, sees Blomkamp digging deep to recapture whatever lightning made District 9 spark.
Tonally, we’re in weird territory here. For all intents and purposes this is a kid’s film… except Blomkamp’s potty-mouth is ever-present, and that third act devolves inevitably into the kind of ultraviolence that earns the film it’s 15 certificate. Chappie appropriates the past – those family-friendly Spielberg-produced favourites – but narrows the audience to just those who can appreciate the nostalgia trip. This isn’t one for a new generation of youngsters to get swept up in. One character’s fate is particularly extreme given the generally playful tone that the film keeps up for its majority.
So yes, Chappie is flawed and flawed big-time. But you know what? It’s probably my favourite Blomkamp film so far. Yes, it’s derivative to the point of ridiculousness, but if you can shrug that off, if you can accept that it’s going to be a bit of a dumb ride, ignore how clunky Dev Patel’s dialogue is, survive Hans Zimmer’s thunderously overbearing score, if you can overlook just how bored Sigourney Weaver looks, and if you don’t find Die Antwoord incessantly irritating (and for the record I didn’t, and if you do, then you should know they are in this A LOT) then there’s a fairly decent guilty pleasure here.
Unfortunately that’s about as ringing an endorsement as I can give Chappie. I’m pleased it doesn’t overdo the sentimentality that the trailer suggests, nor does it hammer too heavily on the kind of bomb-clock countdown that part of its plot depends on. I can imagine happily watching Chappie again down the road; a keenness I don’t particularly share when it comes to Elysium or District 9. Overall though, you’re probably going to need to take Chappie with a pinch of salt.
Before I saw the film I had an idea that, if I didn’t like it, it’d be all too tempting to post a one-word review: Crappie. But that’s lazy, and in truth I enjoyed it enough to make that feel like a cheap shot. But only just enough.