South African director Neill Blomkamp is slowly beginning to establish his unique style and auteur status in Hollywood, but is he actually just a one trick pony? His first effort was the absolutely superb Oscar-nominated District 9. Filmed in mock-documentary style, District 9 is set in a near-future Johannesburg where an alien race has been enslaved by humans and forced to live in slum-like conditions. The film offered a refreshing spin on the tired old alien-invasion scenario, and after only one movie, Blomkamp’s future seemed promising. Next came Elysium, a disappointingly average effort starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Set in 2154, Elysium saw wealthy humans living on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resided on a ruined Earth. It offered bold ideas but not much else in terms of uniqueness the way District 9 did. Compared with his first, Blomkamp had delivered severely below his established standard. And so we come to his third, Chappie. Oh dear, where to start?
The early posters and trailers looked very promising. The main character design of ‘Chappie’ the robot was already drawing comparisons to the excellent Japanese animes Patlabor and Appleseed. The distant memories of Elysium were now being replaced by the anticipation of seeing Neill Blomkamp executing what looked like a stunning live-action Anime movie.
It can be perhaps too easy to rate a movie based on expectations garnered from the marketing campaign, particularly if the actual movie experience differs drastically to what seemed to be initially promised. Sometimes movies are best viewed without exposure to all the teasing fanfare. Unfortunately for Chappie, it is hard to find the positives even when going into the film ‘blind’ without having the weight of expectation looming over it during the running time.
From the moment the film starts, you immediately feel you are in familiar Blomkamp territory. Mock-documentary narrative, newsreel footage, frantic hand-held camera work, and of course a Johannesburg backdrop. The set up is very Robocop-esque: Police robots have replaced police humans and are doing a very good job of ridding the South African streets of gang crime. The opening sequences are frenetic and full of energy. Then after 10 minutes, everything just goes downhill. Very rapidly.
We’re introduced to the mega company supplier of the police robots, headed by the criminally underused Sigourney Weaver (she probably has all of 5 minutes of screen time). Also working for the company is Deon (an awful Dev Patel who is slowly establishing himself as a really poor actor), the computer nerd who created the robots being adopted by the police force. Also working for the company is Australian Vincent (an excellent Hugh Jackman doing the best he can with a limited role), a mullet-toting ex-military alpha male whose own robot project has been sidelined due to Deon’s success. So far, so very Robocop - Vincent’s robots even bear a remarkable resemblance to ED-209.
Then Chappie goes into Short Circuit 2 territory. We are introduced to a trio of idiotic thugs and the movie declines into bad acting and WTF mode. The criminal gang trio are played by South African rap group Die Antwoord. We have Yankie (a Latino ‘gangsta’ stereotype), Yo-Landi (a cross between Tank Girl and Lisbeth Salander) and their leader Ninja - whose tattoos are tragically REAL - who delivers the most cringeworthy performance I’ve seen on screen for a long time. And for reasons unknown, Blomkamp has decided to focus on this unappealing trio for the majority of Chappie. The gang owes millions to a drug lord, and Ninja has the idea of kidnapping Deon with the hope that he can steal a remote control to shut down the police robots so he can carry out a heist to steal the money he owes. Yep, you read that correctly. Wait, it gets better.
Deon has stolen one of his robots in order to update its firmware with an unauthorised ‘learning’ capability, giving him complete AI (artificial intelligence). The robots can only be reprogrammed using a unique USB stick. However, Deon just picks it up and takes it home for several days without anyone batting an eye. Hello security? Die Antwoord then ambush Deon, steal the robot – who at this point has the mental capability of a young child – and decide to raise him as their own, teaching him how to be ‘gangsta’ – wearing gold medallions, rubbing your nose with your finger and holding a handgun sideways apparently - so they can use him to help with their heist. ‘Chappie’ is born, Ninja and Yo-Landi are mummy and daddy, and Deon the computer nerd is allowed to freely come and go to their hideout in order to teach Chappie positive life values. Yep, you read all that correctly too.
And we come to ‘Chappie’ himself, a motion-captured performance by District 9’s ‘Wikus’ Sharlto Copley. Both characters have similarities – Chappie and Wikus are both outcasts struggling to come to terms with their situation. But whereas spending time with Wikus and watching his transformation into a fookin’ prawn was both funny yet tragic, the same cannot be said for ‘Chappie’. Every time Chappie appears on screen I found myself squirming. Imagine Jar Jar Binks crossed with an annoying 8 year old full of coke and chocolate ("Mummy what's this? Mummy what's that? Why you bad man steal Daddy's car?"). Nuff said.
The one saving grace in this mess is shorts-wearing mulleted Hugh Jackman. He’s not an all-out baddie, he’s just disgruntled that his robot project has been overlooked. His tank-like ED-209’s are controlled by humans using a high-tech mind-reading device. A device that ends up in Chappie’s hands towards the end, and what he does with it when he connects it up to some Playstations (Sony product placement is everywhere in Chappie) is so utterly ridiculous that I can’t even bring myself to say it! Let’s just say that Deon’s fate mirrors that of District 9’s Wikus and leave it at that. And ‘Daddy’ Ninja suddenly doing a complete U-turn towards the end really is the icing on the cake – he wants to suddenly put his life on the line to save Chappie, who only has enough battery power for a few hours anyway before he dies. Huh?? Ironically, Die Antwoord translates to ‘The Answer’, and I can quite honestly say that they clearly are not.
This really is more Crappy than Chappie. Let’s hope Blomkamp can make ammends with his proposed Aliens sequel...