Neill Blomkamp’s debut, District 9, felt like a fresh, original take on the alien invasion story. It was a rare treat to see a science fiction film set in Africa, as opposed to the usual earthly environs of Europe or the US, and Blomkamp’s strong allusions to the South African apartheid era suggested a filmmaker who was less concerned with on-screen thrills n’ spills and more interested in ideas, principally with regard to politics, identity and tolerance (though wisely he didn’t overlook the importance of good special effects). The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and, after performing well in the lead role, Blomkamp’s childhood friend Sharlto Copley looked like an actor worth keeping an eye on.
The ensuing years have brought mixed results for both Copley and Blomkamp. The writer-director’s workmanlike second film Elysium took on class and racial divides and said nothing of real substance about either before resorting to a series of uninspiring, drawn-out fight sequences. The effects were of a high standard, once again, but the role of villain seemed to bring out the worst in Copley, who chewed so much scenery he’s probably still coughing up the occasional splinter today. Despite mixed reviews the film made a profit of $170 million which, when added to the $180 million made by District 9, meant that Blomkamp’s stock in Hollywood shot up; as a result the self-confessed Alien fan will helm the next instalment of that franchise.
In the meantime, here’s his third sci-fi feature, Chappie. Blomkamp has returned to his native Johannesburg, scaled his budget back to District 9 levels, and has covered old ground in more ways than one. Set in the near future, the city appears once again to be operating on a knife edge, beset by delinquent criminals, and with its apparent abundance of disused factories and empty towers it recalls the tattered urban chaos of Detroit in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. A falsified opening news sequence – like in Robocop – explains that the beleaguered police force has turned to an arms manufacturer for help – like in Robocop – and the contract to supply a troop of robotic cops (or ‘robocops’, if you will) has been awarded to a company called Omni Consumer Products Tetravaal. Many of Tetravaal’s employees appear to be chained to their cubicle desks and have lost the power of speech, but we do get to follow the exploits of three: Dev Patel’s stereotypical lonely, geeky engineer Deon, Sigourney Weaver’s officious CEO Michelle and Hugh Jackman’s preposterous bully and rival engineer Vincent (dressed like he’s just come straight from the set of a Steve Irwin biopic and sporting a terrible mullet which, incredibly, is only the fourth worst haircut in the film).
Deon is the brains behind the ‘Scout’ line of robots favoured by the police force, which are built to withstand heavy gunfire and designed to assist existing human police officers in tackling crime, usually in a ‘front line’ capacity. We see the robots in action as they swoop on a gang of drug peddling thieves which includes Ninja (rapper ‘Ninja’), Yolandi (another MC, Yolandi Visser) and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who are meeting with muscular crime boss Hippo (Brandon Auret, who makes Copley’s work on Elysium look like a masterclass of minimalist restraint). During the ensuing battle one of the robots is badly damaged, and it is this battered bag of nuts, bolts and wires that Deon decides will be the guinea pig for his newly-developed, unauthorised AI program. Unfortunately Deon and his robot are kidnapped by the criminal gang, who note the possibility of training this particular machine to help in a forthcoming heist, and for reasons I cannot fathom they decide to name ‘him’ ‘Chappie’ (voiced by Copley, who also provided motion capture).
The concept of a childlike robot being raised by human ‘parents’ and a mutual bond subsequently forming is not new, but in the director’s defence it does at least result in an enjoyable 20 minutes while the situation is mined for a few chuckles; Blomkamp does at least have a sense of humour, even if it temporarily deserted him while making Elysium. The gang members – who, incidentally, are as poorly-portrayed as a thousand straight-to-video badasses of the 1980s and who live in a day-glo version of Clarence Boddicker’s hideout in Robocop – show Chappie how to walk and talk like a gangster, festoon him with bling, teach him words he then gets wrong (‘Fuckermother’) and trick him into jacking expensive cars, much to Deon’s horror. Meanwhile, while all this is taking place, the dastardly Vincent discovers Deon’s extra-curricular activities and sets out to discredit the Scout class of droids, thereby forcing the police take up the option of his own robot project ‘Moose’ (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Robocop’s ED-209, just in case the point about the similarities needed ramming home any further).
Though less of an obvious allegory about social divides than his previous two works, once again Blomkamp distills his cinematic world into one of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’: outside of Tetravaal’s campus, Johannesburg’s residents are either wealthy Ferrari owners or maniacal criminals, with very few characters of note occupying the vast space in-between. It’s difficult to take any comments on society by Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell seriously – if you can actually find them in the first place – when they insist on simplifying an entire city’s worth of people by using such extremes. Perhaps there are subtle points during the film about class and race that register with South African audiences; if there are any present I’m afraid they were lost on me.
Chappie also finds Blomkamp and Tatchell garbling the necessary questions about whether machines can actually have souls or consciences or consciousness – the tagline here could be ‘Do androids dream of electric toy chickens?’ – and by creating another robot who is inherently ‘good’ in nature and who can learn from humans the writers revisit ground repeatedly worked over before – you all know the films in question – without saying anything new. Despite this there is, admittedly, a degree of enjoyment to be had in watching the nature / nurture angle play out for the umpteenth time, despite the overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. The different approaches taken by surrogate parents Yolandi and Ninja unfortunately fail to flesh out either character to a satisfying extent, but gradually their combined influence does at least make the character of Chappie a little more interesting as he develops.
Unfortunately by the end Chappie has become a noisy, badly-acted, preposterous mess: ‘robot police’ I can accept (and even expect in the near future), but the film’s major twist is dealt with a little too quickly and conveniently for my liking; the science to go with the abundance of fiction gets short shrift as Blomkamp’s predilection for reducing the final act into a drawn-out, booming battle begins to dominate (and yes: unsurprisingly the climactic scene does have more than a few shades of Robocop’s finale about it). Unfortunately the hail of bullets and the mass of explosions, while mildly entertaining, can’t paper over the cracks. Chappie is a poorly-written and poorly-acted film, it’s a long way off the pantheon of sci-fi greats, and sadly that original debut has been followed by two utterly derivative clangers.
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Jose Pablo Cantillo
Running Time: 120 minutes