The South African wunderkind writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who’s seen by many a geek as the savior of modern science-fiction, recently said that he "f---ed up" his unfairly maligned sophomore effort Elysium. He stated that he made a lot of mistakes with the story as well as the production, and that if he got a chance to tackle it again, he’d do a much better job. If Chappie, a sloppy unofficial remake of Blomkamp’s beloved debut District 9 that rips off pretty much every single 80s sci-fi and anime you can think of, represents his correct artistic vision, perhaps he should f—k up more often.
I’m aware that I’m in the minority when I declare that I much prefer Elysium, which did an excellent job of injecting its simple yet effective political message into a balls to the wall Paul Verhoeven-style hyper violent sci-action fare, to District 9. However, I also think that despite some of its tonal flaws, District 9 constructs a gripping and immensely entertaining sci-fi story with identifiable characters who have clear conflicts and goals. Chappie, on the other hand, uses the same visual approach and story structure of District 9 on a sloppy and unbalanced screenplay full of unreliable world building that constantly reinvents itself for the convenience of the plot, as well as irritating characters whose goals and motivations keep changing arbitrarily. It represents a serious step back in quality for Blomkamp.
The most glaring issue with Chappie is the unfocused and shamelessly derivative screenplay by Blomkamp and his wife Terri Tatchell, who also wrote District 9 together. It’s almost as if Blomkamp and Tatchell merely asked each other to create a list of their favorite 80s sci-fi and anime, created a bunch of impressive yet unrelated sequences inspired by the titles on the list, and slapped together a screenplay that shoddily brought those scenes together a day before production. When examined independently from the film as a whole, there are a lot of scenes here that are technically engaging and sometimes downright breathtaking, but they can’t pull together to create a coherent story no matter how hard they try.
In the near future, police robots have mostly replaced humans to fight crime in Johannesburg. The crafty opening sequence showing a badass artificial taskforce has Robocop written all over it, right down to the brooding Peter Weller-like voices of the robots. While watching this expertly constructed introduction to Chappie’s universe, I was convinced that we finally got an unofficial Robocop remake worthy of praise, especially after last year’s official colossal failure. Unfortunately, after this point Chappie’s tone unceremoniously switches to a more violent version of Short Circuit.
Just like Number 5, who turned into a warm and cuddly robot after originally having been programmed for warfare, the title character Chappie turns from a mindless police robot into an artificial being capable of love and empathy, thanks to groundbreaking A.I. technology invented by his creator Deon (Dev Patel). Unfortunately, the astoundingly stupid criminal couple Ninja and Yolandi (Members of the South African rap group Die Antwoord), who look and act like cyberpunk self-parodies, kidnap Chappie and try to get him to help on a high-paying heist. As Chappie tries to deal with his newfound free will by deciding whether or not to become a ruthless criminal, an A.I. hating soldier/engineer named Vincent (Hugh Jackman, whose presence is entirely wasted here) is hell-bent on using his ED-209 knockoff to destroy him.
Chappie, emphatically voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, is a relatable and, thanks to the tremendous technical prowess of its builders and animators, immediately believable character. The same can’t be said about Ninja and Yolandi, grotesque and irritating caricatures who almost singlehandedly turn the third act into a bland slog since the film’s attempted emotional connection with the audience hinges on us caring about them. The Die Antwoorp duo being abysmal actors, as well as their characters inexplicably turning from ruthless criminals into tender mother and father figures just because the plot required them to doesn’t help Chappie’s credibility.
Every sci-fi actioner contains flimsy plot conveniences in order to excuse for spectacularly unrealistic set pieces. It’s a delicate balance, and it shouldn’t tip towards practically insulting the audience with lazy writing that serves the inconsistent whims of a wholly unoriginal plot. For example, we find out early on that Chappie can only live for five days due to a battery malfunction. It’s an interesting twist on the limited lifespans of Replicants from Blade Runner.
But Blomkamp eventually betrays his own universe by coming up with ridiculous ideas to get around this conflict, chief among them the fact that a device made to pick up on human brain activity works when placed on Chappie’s entirely brain-free metal head. The triple-twisted Frankenstein ending is laughable at best, with a climax that conveniently undoes the plot’s entire driving force. It’s a shame, because Chappie is damn near perfect in every technical sense imaginable, from Chappie himself representing a perfect blend of practical design and CGI, to Hans Zimmer’s galvanizing and bombastic score. Unfortunately, they all serve an unintentionally goofy and undercooked story.