Neil Blomkamp is one of the few people around who seems to know the secret to getting science fiction movies made. Hollywood is notoriously weary of sci fi. A director who deals entirely in that genre, especially the sort of original high concept stuff that Blomkamp is known for, well they’re one of those rare flowers we’ve all heard so much about.
I’m a not so closeted fan of science fiction, which is why part of me wants to root for Blomkamp. The more he succeeds the more of these types of movies we’re going to see. But while he soared all the way to multiple Oscar nominations with his debut District 9, his follow up film Elysium was not nearly as well received.
Blomkamp’s latest, Chappie, sees him return to familiar territory, adapting the same South African setting that served him so well in District 9. This time though the aliens are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Johannesburg—which we’re quickly told is a haven for violence—has been overtaken by a group of high tech police robots known as Scouts, the law’s answer to the ever escalating crime spree that has overtaken the city.
Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the engineer that designed the Scouts, but it’s given rather early that his true passion is cracking artificial intelligence, a digital being capable of its own consciousness.
Well, as you might expect, before long he’s done just that. Yet, before he can get his project up and running, he’s kidnapped by a group of low level thugs, frustrated by the Scouts and hoping to use Deon’s technical prowess to get the police off their back. Instead, they find a beat up robot in Deon’s trunk and have him install his artificial intelligence on it. Chappie is born (that’s where they got the title!), though to some rather unfortunate role models.
In the grand tradition of science fiction, Chappie isn’t afraid of tackling big ideas, finding time to muse about police states, the nature of God, and how our environments shape us (or at least that’s my interpretation—there are multiple angles to take here and that’s a good thing). Even if some of its more interesting elements are held to the back end of the film, it can be quite fascinating when it wants to be.
It’s just a pity that the world constructed to present this story is so silly. To his credit, Blomkamp knows what he wants to talk about, and it’s not pandering stuff. But in fitting it all together in a thoughtful, coherent manner he falls way short. Too often Chappie feels like a half formed idea that, perhaps, with a little more time and a little more patience, could have been something great.
For instance, within the first few minutes a title reveals that apparently all of this is taking place in 2016. As in next year. Anderson Cooper is still on the air! We’re going to have fully fledged, battle ready robots in under a year according to this movie… heck, Back to the Future 2 probably got more right than this.
Likewise, Deon is an engineer who developed an entire line of superhuman robots, but somehow that isn’t enough to earn him his own office. He whittles away at a cubicle for most of the movie, like he’s not basically the second-coming of Steve Jobs.
And when he goes to tell his boss—the criminally underused Sigourney Weaver—about his probably multibillion dollar artificial intelligence system she chides him for bringing her the idea because they work for a weapons company. As though companies only ever want to do one thing always. You know, like how Apple only makes computers because anything else would just be crazy.
Or how about Chappie, an artificial intelligence capable of downloading the entire Internet in a matter of hours, but can also somehow be tricked like a child into committing crimes.
I could go on, but the point is that far too frequently in Chappie character and circumstance conspire in ways that are completely illogical, all because that’s what’s needed to make the plot work. The ideas may be interesting, but what’s the point if the cost is any sort of believability.
And though it’s certainly not the sole cause, that ends up leaving the characters feeling broad and undeveloped, with many of them coming off like walking cartoon characters. It’s a typical problem in science fiction, where high concepts can take front seat to character development, but that doesn’t mean it should just be accepted either.
For those reasons, Chappie isn’t likely to be the comeback movie Neil Blomkamp was probably hoping for. The aesthetics may be appealing, the notions put forward interesting, but he never quite figures out how to piece it all together. And that’s a pity, because I like sci fi.