Neill Blomkamp exploded onto the movie scene with his 2009 hit, District 9. The young director showed a visual style and flair that was fresh and new, whilst also deftly weaving a sci-fi story serving as an allegory for the racial and political struggles of South Africa. Elysium, his sophomore effort, showed that the director’s style was still in full force, however the story was lacking and never managed to reach the heights of its predecessor. So there is a bit of a debate whether Blomkamp is a one-hit wonder, or if he can indeed live up to the potential he showed in District 9. A debate that is sure to carry on after the release of Chappie, the latest movie, written and directed by Blomkamp.
Chappie is set in a time just a few years in the future. With crime running rampant in the streets of Johannesburg, the government has resorted to policing the streets with robotic law enforcers called Scouts. Created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) for the Tetra Vaal Corporation, these automatons have stamped out crime while reducing the death count of human police officers. While the Scout program is a success, not every-one is a happy camper. Another programmer in Tetra Vaal, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) resents Deon and the Scouts, as their success has meant that the funding for his own robot law enforcement program has been cut. This sets up Moore as the main villain in the story, though some of his motivations are very puzzling.
The meat of the story comes in when a group of small-time robbers (Ninja and Yo-landi, members of the South African rap group, Die Antwoord) decide to kidnap Deon to force him to switch off the Scouts so they can commit a bank robbery. Through a series of unfortunate events, one of the Scouts achieves sentience, and becomes the titular Chappie. We follow the robot as it grows from an infantile state to an adult, and watch it’s interactions with Ninja and Yo-Landi, Chappie’s de-facto parents and Deon, Chappies “Maker”.
Sharlto Copley, as Chappie, captures the innocence and curiosity of the sentient robot as he “grows up”. The wonder he feels when he encounters something new is perfectly conveyed with just body language, and the blind trust he has with parents is genuinely heart-breaking when they break that trust. There are times when Chappie’s sense of betrayal and loss of faith really hits, eliciting a huge amount of sympathy from the audience.
However, while the visual and technical artistry is off the charts, the same cannot be said of the story. There are so many scenes where characters make illogical choices and the script itself has many plot-holes. It is painfully obvious that Ninja and Yo-landi aren’t trained actors, and a lot of the themes that pervade the movie are handled with the subtlety of a sledge-hammer.
Now I would be willing to forgive the weak plot a bit more if the film could be carried just by its action scenes, but unfortunately even with all the explosions and robot on robot fights, it was all a little boring. If Blomkamp had decided to forgo the final action sequence for an ending that actually explored some of the questions he had raised during the movie, it might have elevated the material. As it was, the whole experience was a bit ho-hum.
I give the movie a 6 out of 10, and I would wait for it to be available on Blu-ray or digital download.