Upon releasing his sophomore feature, the generally indifferent Elysium, not two years ago, writer/director Neill Blomkamp was keen on ensuring that nonplussed audiences knew he was entirely willing to tacitly disown the film. He didn’t quite say that, but the implication was clear. Fitting, for Elysium seemed exactly like the sub-Ridley Scott piece of blockbuster arch-competence a promising young director would sputter out upon their introduction to the corporate world, a classic example of filmmaking-by-committee and a work whose primary sin was a complete and utter lack of passion or investment from its principles. It seemed like Blomkamp producing his idea of what audiences, and producers, would want more than the film he actually wanted to make. “For his next film”, one could almost hear him hush under his breath every time he spoke, “Blomkamp the passionate South African science fiction juggernaut would return”.
In a manner of speaking, Chappie fulfills this potential; it is far, far too awful and idiotic to have been produced by a sterile corporation looking to turn a profit, and, concurrently, too singularly “visionary” to be disowned. If Elyisum was stagnant and antiseptic, Chappie plummets into a delirious sort of awfulness that could only come from one person’s loopy, wandering mind left unchecked. Ostensibly Blomkamp’s awkward ode to 1980s science fiction, it has been a great and shameful long time since a film of this budget and caliber has been so wonderfully confused about the basic fundamentals of not screwing your audience over. Just the tone of Chappie is a masterpiece of having absolutely no idea in hell what is going on, giddily skipping between a lame-brained copy-paste of Robocop and one of the most inane Short Circuit proxies you’d forgotten you didn’t need. Both of these are questionable products – a Robocop pastiche in 2015 misses the point and no one is asking for another Short Circuit.
But, hey, what if we put them together! Apparently Blomkamp’s thought, as though this sort of concoction of ’80s sci-fi nonsense would beget an inventive melding of styles. “Unique”, he might have called it in a pitch-meeting, or “visionary”. Chappie is both of these things, certainly, but it is also awful. It is a case of Blomkamp having an idea for something no one has yet done and completely failing to even bother to ask just why it is no one had thought to meld, say, a gnarly, vicious anti-corporate sci-fi action film where the bones crunch with gusto and the blood spews from every orifice and a twee, light-as-a-feather ET rip-off for children. So we end up with Chappie (voice and mo-cap of Sharlto Copley) abandoned by his inventor (Dev Patel), who works for a weapons manufacturer and can’t get his dream of using Chappie for art or science, at which point Chappie has to struggle to find his place in the world after being informally adopted by a local South African gangster couple, played by South African musical act Die Antwood members Yolandi and Ninja. Trouble is, these two have conflicted, unsure ideas about what to do with Chappie, leading to a conflicted, unsure film, and there is an even more serious (and wonderfully stupid) threat in the form of Hugh Jackman’s perplexing weapons specialist who has it in for Patel’s character and his creation for reasons the film thinks it explains.
Which leads us to the implication that Chappie is a child and that he should, for all intents and purposes, be treated like one; nothing about the screenplay indicates any concern about artificial intelligence as an abstract, but simply an awareness that they must be reared with care and concern (it is a de facto “nurture” argument without question). Fine and dandy, except that the film’s sympathy for Chappie the character as a child of fairly adorable proportions contrasts with its insistence on doing Chappie serious bodily harm throughout the film. We, without any real concern or consideration, cavort from cringe-inducing comic relief of the childlike variety to fairly grisly violence to none-the-wheres ramblings about the nature of intelligence to some of the most unintelligible excuses for draining sympathy out of a saccharine screenplay you could possibly imagine.
All the while, it genuinely seems like Blomkamp thinks he’s on to something. The tonal inconsistency is genuinely scary at times, and that may be the point after-all, to get us into Chappie’s contorted ripcord of a mind. But Blomkamp is not a skilled enough director or writer to essay out the jarring contrasts and siphon out the elemental fears that seem to be on Chappie’s mind. And this isn’t to mention the performances, which veer from lame-brained to demented (the two members of Die Antwood playing Chappie’s pseudo-parents are woefully unpolished, but this genuinely helps the film move from catatonic to the endless parade of fascinating hilarity it ends up being).
It also doesn’t mention how the film has absolutely no clue how to use just about any of its characters, primarily Chappie himself, who serves as a punching bag throughout. Or the endlessly passive non-presence of Patel’s flustered scientist Blomkamp writes off for almost the entire film and then suddenly shows up again because Blomkamp remembered he was in the film. Or Jackman’s bizarre silent-film display of snarling smugness and snidely, whiplash physical gestures. Or Ninja, the male member of Die Antwood, who the film cannot decide whether to treat as a villain or a hero, and treats accordingly, using him as it needs to advance the plot without any consideration of his character as a thinking human being.
But that’s Chappie for you, the endlessly twitching death nerve of a writer/director left unchecked in his natural habitat of idiocy and unremitting inanities. It isn’t even nice to look at, with featureless digital cinematography carted out entirely without purpose. To the people who think of Blomkamp as some sort of great visual director, all one needs to do is take a gander at Chappie’s generally indifferent framing and pallid aesthetic. It’s a boring looking film, but thankfully the manner in which the story is told, all stutters and flip-flopping purpose, is no simulacrum of incompetence. In a manner of speaking, this is the real deal.