When District 9 hit theaters six years ago, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp was (prematurely) crowned the new King of Post-Modern Sci-fi, and he’s been trading on his Best Picture nominee ever since. Just recently, his Instagram-aided push for a new Alien film met with greenlight approval from the studio, and while many found it flawed, Elysium gambled on a universal healthcare subtext and nearly succeeded. Nearly.
Now we have Chappie, another noble failure, a film filled with great ideas brought down by one of the dumbest casting choices any director has ever made. Rave rappers Die Antwoord might be a big deal on the other side of the world, but throwing group members Ninja and Yo-Landi into major roles into this otherwise intriguing film was a huge mistake.
Granted, they may represent a facet of daily culture (the concept of “zef,” or “everyday trash”) that’s become an essential part of Blomkamp’s milieu, and it may even seem novel to include them in a bit of not too distant future shock, but the duo cannot act, have no real presence onscreen, and constantly slow down something that could have been far more intriguing and insightful.
A few years from now, a scout robot will be developed by a brilliant engineer named Deon (Dev Patel) and the city of Johannesburg embraces these machines as their new police force. Suddenly, violent crime is down and gang activity is relegated to the slums and fringes. Their eager acceptance angers fellow inventor Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who wants his massive, militarized, man-driven machine used instead. His boss (Sigourney Weaver) wants nothing to do with the device, and is wary of Deon’s desire to place a complete artificial intelligence in one of her “cops.”
All that changes one day when Scout 22 is decommissioned. Deon steals it and, just as he’s about to make the transition, he is kidnapped by a bunch of hoods (Ninja, Yo-Landi, and Jose Pablo Cantillo) who want the technological key to controlling the police. Seems they are in deep with a local mobster and need a lot of money to save themselves. After learning of Deon’s plan, they force him to make the change, and soon, the first robot with a consciousness is “born.” Called “Chappie” (voiced by Sharlto Copley) he soon becomes a pawn between the criminals, its creator, and Moore, who sees an opportunity to push his agenda.
Never a straightforward experience, Chappie has moments of ingenuity and inspiration. It also is overflowing with nonsense and irritations. Die Antwoord constantly drag the material down, while Jackman and Patel do their best to counter such stunt casting. The idea of Chappie coming into his own as a “human being” is mentioned, and then quickly tossed aside for more lame rap and hip-hop slang. Yet in those moments, the movie comes alive as well. Everything else is a skit from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
It’s all about wavelength. Blomkamp and his professionals are on one, Ninja and Yo-Landi are on another, often located somewhere in another galaxy. There are rumors of rough times on the set, and it shows. Chappie feels choppy, pieced together from takes and scenes that struggle to work, while the rest of the narrative moves along with a logical efficiency.
We know it has to build to a third act confrontation between our hero and Jackman’s version of the ED-209, so there’s no real surprises. We also wait for a moment of “revolution” (per the trailers and marketing), but that word never appears in the movie. At some point, Chappie became a salvage job, and whatever the original intent, the contrived, confusing mess that’s the result speaks volumes for Blomkamp’s future in film. While the Alien universe and mythology might provide sufficient guidance to keep him out of trouble, Chappie argues that, as of now, he’s fresh out of original ideas.