Its official, Neil Blomkamp is the new king of the B-movie in Hollywood. Give this man a bad script (or allow him to write it) and he will direct the shit out of it – filling every nook and cranny of the film with more allegorical nonsense than an 8th grade book report on The Great Gatsby. Does any of it work? Not really, in fact most of it probably won’t. Then why – oh why – did I end up enjoying Chappie so much?
Chappie is basically the story of Blomkamp’s debut feature District 9 with a few little wrinkles. In Johannesburg, South Africa the crime rate is sky rocketing with little recourse. Facing desperate times the government commissions a company to begin building (nearly) indestructible robot police. These AI can drive, speak, shoot guns and I assume eat doughnuts. They do however have a rigid program that defines lawful behavior. This leads to a steep decline in crime in South Africa and the potential for worldwide expansion.
Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the lead engineer of the police-droid army. He is admired for his creation but has ambitions greater than this. He’s nearly cracked the code of consciousness (seriously – so dumb) and wants to birth the first AI that is sentient. Of course Sigourney Weaver – who I’m sure has a name in the movie – doesn’t want that to happen. As the CEO of “major, faceless corporation” she knows that kind of project is frivolous and expensive.
While Deon attempts to convince Sigourney that his project will bear fruit she is funding a frivolous weapons program run by the evil, mulleted Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman.) Moore believes the droids are not long for this world and has developed the Moose – a monstrous hunk of metal run by the human brain that comes equipped with essentially every major explosive and gun known to man. It’s far too much firepower for a police force but Vincent believes it could be the final nail in the coffin to criminal behavior in South Africa.
But corporate bureaucracy be damned! Just as Deon decides to go rogue and steel enough droid parts to attempt his noble AI test he is swept up by petty criminals Ninja and Yolandi (played by Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-landi Visser.) The criminals know Deon is the architect of the droids and need him to shut them down so they can rob an armored car to pay off their debts to a big scary guy. Deon convinces these buffoons to let him build his test to help them – and Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley) is born.
The film finds the most inspiration in Chappie’s early moments. The scenes where he learns and assimilates to the underground, gangster world are ripe for great physical comedy and interesting societal musings. None of it is deft or subtle but no B-movie ever is. Instead Blomkamp finds inspiration in the early Frankenstein films and plays his version nearly as broadly. Casting two rappers in Ninja and Yolandi add even more breadth to the campiness on display.
Speaking of casting – I don’t think anyone has ever been more game for such silly material than Hugh Jackman. Dressed like the Crocodile Hunter with a mullet from the mid-80’s Jackman chews as much scenery as possible as the broken Vincent Moore. It’s clear he admires Blomkamp’s verve and commitment because I can’t think of any other reason he is even in this movie.
Chappie himself though is the films biggest achievement. No one has ever accused Blomkamp of being a poor technician onscreen and his newest creation is no different. Veteran Blomkamp-actor Sharlto Copley voices the sheepish bot (while also providing his movements) to help create a photo-realistic, lifelike robot. Copley essentially creates robot E.T. – who can kick serious ass and phone home.
And sure, what Blomkamp has created here is a derivative mess (derivative of his own material no less.) But I found it to be a charming mess. After the stark emptiness of Elysium (a movie I truly hate) it was – dare I say – refreshing to find Blomkamp clawing for the same bloated idealism that he mined in District 9. If you wanted to reach you could find faint critiques of police power, corruption and brutality but when the bullets start flying you probably won’t want to reach.
And, like many grindhouse movies of the past Chappie accelerates in the final third, completely abandoning any allegorical aspirations for explosions. Maybe stepping outside his native South Africa and into the world of Alien will be the best thing for Blomkamp’s filmmaking evolution. It could be the perfect step for him as the new king of B-movie exploitation. No one ever accused the Alien universe of being subtle.