I have a feeling that by starting his career on District 9, Neill Blomkamp may have done himself, and the rest of us for that matter, a bit of a disservice. After coming out of the gate with one of the most original, inventive, thoughtful, and just all-around good sci-fi films of the decade, Blompkamp followed up with Elysium. Elysium sucked. Mostly because it just wasn’t District 9. Where District 9 felt fresh and new, with a nuanced perspective and an interesting lead, Elysium felt like a collection of broad clichés, posing as an allegory for the wealth gap built around a shockingly generic turn by Matt Damon. The hope was that Elysium was a misstep, a slight stumble in what would otherwise be a great career for Blomkamp, and that he’d be back up to old form soon.
But now, with his new film Chappie receiving a critical paddling virtually across the board, we may have to accept a very uncomfortable truth: that Blomkamp was never the director we really wanted him to be, the golden boy who would deliver us a bright new future of intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi that also kicked ass, finally cementing the idea that fun and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to sci-fi blockbusters. Because as you may have heard, Chappie isn’t great. Just like Elysium, it strings together a collection of shallow observations and allegories with a fairly dull collection of performances, with the mechanical designs and effects being the only thing worth remarking on.
A few years into the future, a brand-spanking new robotic police force is rolled out onto the streets of Joburg, bringing down crime rates and bringing up “cliched monotone robot voice” rates. The creator of the robots, played by Dev Patel, isn’t satisfied however, and imbues a busted robot with true AI, creating a thinking, feeling robot named Chappie. Of course, this all happens at the same time as Patel being kidnapped by a trio of criminals played by South African rave rappers Die Antwoord, whose influence throws Chappie’s future into question. While all this is happening, Hugh Jackman lurks around in the shadows, plotting Chappie’s downfall.
Given the film’s pedigree, I went in expecting Chappie to at least offer something approximating a discussion on the dangers, ethical and otherwise, of creating a truly sentient AI. But then again, I could walk into a Burger King expecting haute quisine, too. The problem is that all the elements are totally there for Chappie to actually be the nuanced look at a loaded topic I want it to be. Prince Zuko is totally set up to be the idealistic dreamer who creates something without fully considering the consequences of ethical ramifications of his actions. He even panics, and tries to control Chappie when the reality of what he’s done dawns on him. But at no point does he acknowledge that he may have acted in haste, that maybe he should have slept on it, or written a pros and cons list for bringing about the greatest technological achievement since the invention of the wheel.
By the same coin, Wolverine could totally have had legitimate fears and concerns over Chappie’s creation, because after all the prospect of an AI a billion times more intelligent than a human and capable of unraveling fundamental secrets of life with a stack of Playstations is pretty goddamn scary. But the only reason he hates Chappie, and all of Slumdog’s robots is that their development cuts into the funding of his own robot, an ED-209 ripoff controlled by VR. He never has a legitimate or understandable viewpoint, he’s just some mean Australian dude who got screwed out of some money.
No real questions are raised, no issues are addressed or ethical quandaries grappled with, just another noble, lovable robot messiah who faces down two-dimensional evil with catchphrases and childlike naivete.
Maybe I wouldn’t be so cynical about Chappie, if it weren’t also littered almost as much Sony product placement as The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I mean, thank GOD Chappie had the amazing processing power of the Playstation 4 and the intuitively designed Sony Vaio laptop to help him discover the secrets of consciousness. Without these fine products, that evil, multinational mega-corp would have won out over individuality and free thought! Thankfully, Chappie doesn’t lean too hard on any kind of anti-corporate message, otherwise the product placement would have made the whole thing feel more disingenuous than my OKCupid profile.
But on the topic of commercial products dropped into the movie for no real reason… Why is Die Antwoord in this movie? I mean, really. They even go by their stage names, and are basically just playing versions of, what I assume, are already their Joburg gangster personas, and given the fact that they also provide a healthy chunk of the soundtrack, Chappie often ends up feeling like one of those high-concept music video movie album things, like Interstella 5555 something Kanye West would do.
As an action movie, it works well enough. Guns get shot in slow-motion, things explode, but the thing is that Blomkamp has set me up to ask that his movies be more than just action fests. District 9 had ideas, it had allegories, it had interesting and nuanced characters, it addressed the social ramifications of its central idea. Chappie never dares to go as deep, content to wade in the ideological kiddie pool. It even has the gaul to make motions toward some kind of religious allegory, carefully positioning Chappie and Sonny Kapoor into theological positions, with Chappie pointedly asking his creator why he was put in a body that will soon break down and die. But the problem is they never go anywhere with it, they never take it anyplace interesting.
“See, see!?” says the film, “The troubled relationship between Chappie and his creator is just like the theological questions grappled with by people of faith!” “Well great, movie”, says the audience, “Where you gonna take this next then?” At which point the film gives a panicked stare and goes “Oooh look Chappie’s got a rubber chicken isn’t it cute?!”
What happened, man? What happened to that horizon we were promised in 2009, of awesome sci-fi movies with intelligence and wicked cool action? What happened to the guy who was gonna deliver us from Avatar, and Michael Bay’s Transformers? Did we just put District 9 and Blomkamp on a pedestal they weren’t ready for? Would we be kinder to Chappie and even Elysium if they weren’t standing in the shadow of their predecessor? Maybe on all counts. But whatever the case may be, Chappie still doesn’t amount to a very good movie. As more than a couple of critics have suggested, just watch Short Circuit and the Robocop remake back to back and save yourself the let-down.