By Nick Anstett
Elm Staff Writer
When first time director Neill Blomkamp debuted the science fiction film “District 9” in summer of 2009, it took the world by storm. “District 9” was hailed by audiences and critics alike for its smart political wit, creative premise, and sense of bloody fun. It even earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and had “Time Magazine” label Blomkamp as one of the most influential people of the year. For many, Blomkamp presented an exciting view of the future of genre oriented film making, a Ridley Scott or James Cameron for the 21st century. Unfortunately, with “Chappie,” Blomkamp’s third film, he is still trying to recapture the magic of his first stellar debut.
A change has been brought to the crime ridden streets of Johannesburg, South Africa. Robotic police drones have replaced human cops in the fight against crime. However, for genius roboticist Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) this isn’t enough. Wilson is on the verge of a truly great discovery, true sentient artificial intelligence. However, through a series of accidents Wilson’s robotic prototype built in the chassis of one of the city’s police drones ends up in the hands of two street gang members Ninja and Yolandi, played by the members of the rap group Die Antwoord of the same name. Here the burgeoning artificial intelligence nicknamed Chappie (Sharlto Copley), is forced to grow up in a land of poverty, theft, and violence.
If there is anything about “Chappie” that definitely works it is the execution of its title character. Blomkamp has long mastered the ability to create believable and sometimes even photo realistic visual effects in atypical science fiction environments. It’s part of what made his previous two films successful. This continues and while, what is presented is nothing new to those familiar with the director’s work, it’s still very impressive from a technical standpoint. In a similar manner the character of Chappie, expertly portrayed through motion capture and voice by Copley, shines. Chappie’s childlike naiveté and innocence contrasts well for the world around him to create an inherently likeable and sympathetic nonhuman protagonist. Even if the narrative of Chappie’s steps towards true consciousness is nothing new to the genre, it’s a story that contains enough heart and spectacle that it grabs your attention.
It’s unfortunate that much of the rest of “Chappie” borders on the unwatchable. While there are likely some viewers in the general populace that may enjoy seeing South African rap group Die Antwoord swagger their way through a science fiction action film, those not familiar with the duo of Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser are unlikely to get any enjoyment from this. While both are mostly competent performances, Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell’s script does not position either of these characters to be likable protagonists. Both are barely coherent in their repeated spouting of stereotypical gangsterisms, and their attempts to teach Chappie the ins and outs of “Number one Gangsta” behavior is more likely to induce groans than laughter.
In a similar manner there’s unfortunate amount of pedigree actors that turn in frustratingly poor performances in “Chappie.” While this could be blamed just as much on the flat script than on the actor’s themselves, there’s something a little heartbreaking to see Sigourney Weaver’s perpetually eye rolling CEO or Hugh Jackman’s rugby ball tossing jock antagonist slouch their way through the film. Only Patel manages to escape with a character with any real substance, but his arc’s conclusion rings surprisingly flat.
In a way, one cannot help but wish that perhaps “Chappie” had even skewed slightly younger in its target audience. As impressive as the gore and flashy techno-violence can be, the true heart of the film lies in a childlike robot trying to find his way in a world that cannot possibly understand him. It doesn’t need gangstas, bisections, drugs, nudity, shootouts, or South African rap stars. It has, for fleeting moments, a heart in the right place and maybe even something to say, but quickly loses sight of the toys at its disposal.
There’s potential evident throughout “Chappie.” Whether it’s through the inherent talent on display or through its impressive science fiction aesthetic, on paper “Chappie” looks to be a suitable follow up project to the director that was at one point hailed to be the inheritor of the science fiction genre. The result is something else all-together. It works in sporadic doses, but it is mired in a sea of tired cliché, vulgarity, and frustrating performances.