Time to call it, folks: Neill Blomkamp is fool’s gold.
He seemed like the next big genre filmmaker when District 9 hit the scene, backed by Peter Jackson after their hyped-up adaptation of Halo so infamously fell apart. Granted, D9 had a flimsy story and a few painfully two-dimensional central characters, but the premise was intriguing and the South African setting was something new to Hollywood cinema. Blomkamp did a superb job of delivering aliens and robots with immersive grit and superlative VFX skill, to say nothing of his bold attempt at bringing some intelligence back to mainstream science fiction. He also introduced the world to Sharlto Copley, which is no bad thing.
With so many virtues in his favor, it might have been easy to overlook Blomkamp’s storytelling flaws as the product of a debut auteur. But then Elysium happened.
It was like all the problems and strengths of D9, but with none of the novelty. Another potentially clever allegory told by way of a heavy-handed, boring story and flat characters. Another world brought to life with vivid creativity and sterling special effects, but undone with even the slightest glimpse at all the plot holes. And of course, we got more of the same squalid Johannesburg that we already saw in D9.
By now, it’s become obvious that Blomkamp is far more interested in good concepts than good stories. And that’s not me saying that, that’s Blomkamp himself saying that. In the process of promoting this movie, it seems like he’s spent half the time apologizing for the last film and the other half talking about his next film. That does not bode well for this current film, which has already been trashed by critics.
Still, I continued to give Blomkamp the benefit of the doubt and hope that Elysium was just a sophomore slump. Then he came out with Chappie, another film set in the slums of Johannesburg, named for a robot who looks like he could have walked off the set from either of Blomkamp’s previous films. The story this time concerns a robot police drone who gains artificial sentience, and the trailers couldn’t seem to figure out whether the film was ripping off Robocop or Short Circuit.
The premise begins with Tetravaal, a robotics company that’s made a huge fortune by capitalizing on crime rates in South Africa. Their solution was the manufacture of artificially intelligent droids to replace the human police force, who now work in a support capacity for the front line drones.
(Side note: Incidentally, “Tetra Vaal” is also the name of Blomkamp’s very first short film, featuring robots that bear a strong resemblance to the drones in this film.)
Our story focuses on drone #22, which seems to have an unlucky habit of getting shot at and breaking down on a regular basis. In fact, #22 is so unlucky that he takes an RPG to the chest within the opening minutes, and is summarily thrown into the salvage pile. Enter Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the man who originally designed the drones. He’s been working in his spare time to develop a true artificial intelligence, with all the emotional capacity and creative potential of a human being. And after 964 days of trying, he’s finally cracked it.
Deon’s boss (Michelle Bradley, played by Sigourney Weaver) quite wisely decides not to let Deon test his pet project with company machinery, but not for the right reasons. Never mind that such a powerful AI could turn out to be the technological singularity that renders mankind obsolete, and never mind that Dev is clearly able to build his own pet robots at home out of scrap. No, Bradley’s more worried about the insurance on one of those military bots, and why would a military robotics company invest money toward a robot that can write poetry? Both admittedly valid points, but still.
Anyway, Deon decides to go and steal lucky #22 for his experiment, since it’s already set to be broken down for scrap and who’s going to miss it?
While all of that’s going on, we have the storyline of Ninja and Yolandi (played by South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord, who are also named Ninja and Yolandi), and their partner in crime (nicknamed “Amerika,” played by Jose Pablo Cantillo). The three of them were on a robbery gone bust, so now they have to pay some other crime lord (Hippo, played by Blomkamp regular Brandon Auret) several millions of dollars or die in a week. With their backs to the wall, Ninja and Yolandi come upon the bright idea of kidnapping the guy who made the police droids and forcing him to help them carry out a heist without police resistance.
I don’t know what’s dumber: That no other criminal in all of South Africa thought to try this sooner, or that the multibillion-dollar robotics defense company didn’t prepare against this sort of thing. No, seriously. A couple of low-life thugs decide that they’re going to kidnap the man who pretty much singlehandedly created an entire titanium police force, and the thugs succeed just by waving some guns around. It’s like absolutely no one thought that this might happen. But it did, and the timing was of course perfect.
Ninja and Yolandi went and hijacked Deon’s van while he was in possession of his scrapped droid and his experimental AI system. A short while later, the rebuilt droid comes online as a character voiced and mo-capped by Sharlto Copley, dubbed “Chappie.” Thus Ninja, Yolandi, Amerika, and Deon all come to a grudging arrangement: The gang will keep Chappie as their own personal robot bodyguard for assistance with the heist they’re going to pull, and Deon will come by to help the robot’s development and check the progress of the AI.
See, though Chappie may be thinking with a tremendously powerful CPU running the most advanced software in history, he still doesn’t know anything about the world. Just like any other newborn, he has to learn and grow. Except that this baby is a titanium humanoid built for combat, shunned by all the world because he looks like a cop. Oh, and his battery (fused to the chassis and damaged by the RPG blast) only has enough charge for five days, did I mention that part?
There’s no denying that the story ties itself into a convoluted knot getting Chappie where he needs to be. Still, Chappie himself is brilliant. His design is great, his animation looks fantastic, the blend of CGI and practical effects to bring him to life looks amazing, and Sharlto Copley deserves all manner of praise for making his movements and voice work so well. The character comes to terms with death, morality, and other aspects of the human condition that we spend a lifetime getting used to, but Chappie does it at an accelerated pace, which is of course as unsettling for him as it would be for anyone. Moreover, Chappie is a pure being who — in spite of himself — keeps getting warped by his surroundings into something more crude and violent.
The title character and all of his moral conundrums are fascinating to watch. There are two significant problems, however.
First of all, this is a film about a piece of mass-produced military hardware that suddenly gains sentience, taking on a childlike personality obsessed with learning about everything around him. He then learns about ethics, emotions, and mortality, all while struggling against the evil corporation that made him (and now wants to destroy him) as well as the violent purposes for which he was made in the first place. That is, word for goddamn word, the premise of Short Circuit.
Though come to think of it, the concept of AI, its implications for humanity, and its use as a way to examine the human condition are all well-worn concepts in cinema. Blade Runner comes immediately to mind, ditto for I, Robot and Her. Hell, one of the biggest films released this year will feature an artificially intelligent robot gone rogue. There’s also the upcoming Ex Machina, which promises to be a movie about artificial intelligence wrapped in a claustrophobic suspense thriller.
It’s a huge freaking problem when a film comments on such a threadbare topic without bringing anything new to the table. And the best this movie can offer (aside from everything we’ve already seen in two other Blomkamp films) is a needlessly violent and brainless climax fueled with blood and TNT.
The second big problem is that while Chappie himself may be fascinating (if perhaps a little too similar to other robots we’ve seen in other movies), the other characters around him are sooooooo BORING. Yolandi is a one-note character who barely says or does anything aside from act like a protective maternal figure for Chappie. Ninja is a one-note character who wants to turn Chappie into a violent criminal to save his own skin. Amerika tries to go for a middle road between the two, but it only serves to make him into something barely memorable.
The other supporting characters aren’t much better. Hippo is an aggressively annoying one-note character with absolutely no intelligence, shouting about how he wants something because the plot says so. At least Bradley didn’t turn out to be the one-note greedy CEO she so easily could have been. No, Bradley gets absolutely nothing worthwhile aside from the fact that it’s Ellen Fucking Ripley playing this thankless role.
But then we have Deon and his main antagonist, both of whom are really what sink this movie. See, Deon’s quest to create an artificially intelligent robot is the main thrust of this story. In terms of plot and in terms of thematic relevance with regards to artificial intelligence, absolutely everything stems from Deon’s experiments. Yet the film never thinks to ask “why?” No, seriously, why? It’s a simple question. Why is Deon so fascinated with artificial intelligence? Why is he willing to put his own life and career on the line to create something that could very well destroy and replace humanity? I really can’t begin to stress enough how critically imperative the character’s motivation was for this entire movie. Yet that motivation is ignored entirely, and the film’s arguments in favor of artificial life thusly collapse into a great big pile of goop.
By a similar token, there’s the matter of Vincent, played by Hugh Jackman. He’s another Tetravaal engineer, though he thinks that artificial intelligence is a sin against man and nature. His arguments against sentient AI were badly needed, but absolutely none of them are presented in a way that stick. Leaving aside that his arguments never go into more detail than “AI = bad,” there’s the fact that Vincent wants to take AI-controlled scouts off the streets by replacing them with human-controlled ED-209 mechs. You might ask why the existing scouts couldn’t merely be retrofitted so they could be controlled remotely by human pilots, and you ask that because your brain is located in your head instead of your anus.
Instead of taking the simpler, more cost-effective, more obvious solution, Vincent instead decides to put his entire life’s work into developing a ridiculously overpowered and expensive piece of machinery that would be better-suited for invading a country than dealing with urban crime. In short, it’s plainly obvious that Vincent is acting out of his own ego and his innate hunger for violence, both of which lead him to commit unspeakable crimes as the film continues. It’s impossible to sympathize with such a one-dimensionally evil character, which means that any points he might have raised against AI are rendered entirely moot.
Though to be fair, I must say that Jackman makes for a surprisingly charismatic villain. The guy’s built his whole career playing a physically imposing yet charming and handsome leading man, and it’s really satisfying to see him use those attributes toward a deceptively cool antagonist. He’ll next be seen as a pirate in an upcoming Peter Pan prequel later this year, and now I’m actually very interested to see what he does in the role.
Like Blomkamp’s other works so far, Chappie is a really good idea ruined by the rest of the film around it. The plot is ridiculously contrived and the human characters are all either boring or one-note. Whatever brilliant statements the film might have had, they got drowned out by the characters’ stupidity and the excessive violence of the climax. Chappie himself is brilliantly presented and superbly acted by Copley, but both are deserving of a much better movie and they’re not enough to justify the ticket price.
As for Blomkamp taking on an Alien sequel? Sure, why not? Don’t get me wrong, I’d much prefer it if we all just let the franchise die already. We got two great movies out of it, and they’ll forever be masterpieces. Everything since then has been a failed effort to recapture the old magic and there’s too much water under the bridge to hope that anyone will ever succeed. Better to take what we have and call it a day, nostalgia be damned. (See also: The Terminator franchise.)
On the other hand, that could also mean that we have nothing to lose. The Alien franchise, much like Blomkamp himself, can only go up from here. If taking the guy out of Johannesburg and putting him into an existing universe is the only way to get Blomkamp out of his own self-imposed rut so he can start delivering on the potential he’s promised since day 1, then I’m all for it. After his last three movies, what’s the worst that could happen?