In 2009, Neil Blomkamp made a name for himself not only within the science-fiction community but also in the world of cinema for his debut film, “District 9.” Blending a documentarian-style type of filmmaking, whose origins date back to the works of Vertov and Flaherty, with updated digital technology, Blomkamp’s style was not only distinct but also pivotal in bringing out the politics of his work.
Since “District 9,” however, Blomkamp’s style has begun to lose its focus. With his next film, “Elysium,” Blomkamp once again fused science-fiction with politics in order to reflect upon real-world issues but what “Elysium” lacked was a certain amount of depth into its portrayal of political issues. Gone also was Blomkamp’s stylized filming, exchanged in favor for something more dull. With his latest film, “Chappie,” Blomkamp has, for the most part, lost what made “District 9” such an engrossing film.
Set in the near-future of Johannesburg, the police force have adopted the use of autonomous robots with the result being a decrease in both crime and casualties. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the inventor of the robots, as well as an engineer working for Tetra Vaal, the company that produces them, wishes to make something greater in the form of a robot with its own conscious.
The idea itself isn’t new in the world of film, let alone science-fiction. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey,” is arguably best known for its robotic character “Hal,” while Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” examined the identity issues present between robots, that not only posses consciousness but also look human, and ourselves. Blomkamp’s “Chappie” then becomes a film whose responsibility lies in creating something new from this age-old idea.
Deon approaches his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) with the possible idea, and she understandably rejects him, making for one of the finer points of the film. Bradley argues that as a weapons manufacturer, creating an intelligence that, as Wilson puts it, will “create art,” will result in a loss of revenue. Unsatisfied, Wilson goes behind her back, stealing a robot meant for destruction, and programs it to have a conscious. Bradley’s aforementioned rebuttal changes the way in which we come to understand “Chappie.”
Underneath its exterior which houses themes concerning robotics, advanced warfare, and trans-humanism, “Chappie” is also about money and the various ways in which it governs our world. Yolandi Visser and Ninja play the characters of Yolandi and Ninja, respectively. Yolandi and Ninja are gangsters, who, after a heist gone wrong, owe their gang leader an exorbitant amount of money. With their lives on the line, Yolandi offers the idea of kidnapping Deon in order to control the robotic police force, thus being then able to perform the heist that will literally save their lives. Ninja and Yolandi very much represent the “have-nots,” and stylistically, this is shown through the set-piece that the two call “home,” an abandoned factory of sorts.
The walls of the factory are strewn with drawings, drawings who’s child-like aura and demeanor are shattered by the written graffiti accompanying them, which bears various anarchistic and punk-like phrases. Their fridge, as revealed in one scene later on, is scarce and anything held within appears rotten. Yolandi and Ninja’s room, as well as the rest of the house, is covered with junk, ranging from a broken down car, to toys and empty beer bottles. Yolandi and Ninja, however, are only representative of one dimension of the “have- nots,” Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) being representative of a different angle.
Moore is a soldier turned engineer currently working for Tetra Vaal. Whereas Deon Wilson wishes to make robots with consciousness, Moore is interested in his own idea, a giant bipedal tank. Unfortunately for Moore, the police are uninterested as the weapon’s fearsome capabilities outrival its actual need, leading to a loss of funding for Moore. Moore, then, like Ninja and Yolandi, is in need of money.
Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, who shares the mantle of co-screenwriter, not only bring up the metaphysical question of at what cost it’ll take for these technological advances to come about but also the literal cost. Moore’s minor function in this ideological narrative, however, is about as interesting as the character gets. Written like a bad Saturday morning cartoon-villain, Moore’s character, as well as his ambitions remain the film’s most shallow point. Driven by jealousy of Wilson’s success, Moore seeks to oust the engineer and his robotic companion out by violent means. “Chappie’s” biggest offense is the inclusion of Moore’s character and the sub-plot which he brings along, because it turns the film into an unnecessary and bloated spectacle.
“Chappie’s” biggest strength lies in its central character whose name is eponymous from the film’s title. Rather than focus on the social implications of Chappie as a robot with consciousness, Blomkamp and Tatchell merely hint at it, choosing instead to turn “Chappie” into a mediocre crime-action comedy. One momentous scene that demonstrates the former however, is the depiction of Chappie’s “birth.”
Present are Ninja, Yolandi, their third partner in crime Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), and Deon. Ninja, Yolandi, who takes on the role of a doting mother, and Deon are all ideologically split on how to “raise” Chappie. Ninja wants to make Chappie a death-machine for heists, in Chappie Yolandi finds the child she and Ninja don’t have, whereas Deon wishes to nurture the creativity in Chappie. But what all these accounts are lacking is the question of what Chappie wants to do. Chappie’s autonomy, ironically, is taken away from him by just having a conscious.
Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie” is a film of ideas. Ideas that are, unfortunately, too big for Blomkamp to properly handle. Constrained by its narrative, “Chappie” is never truly given the space it needs to fully cultivate its idea, resulting in a lackluster product.