Neill Blomkamp's Chappie Is a Well-Intentioned Disaster - But It's Still Better Than Elysium
I'm a huge fan of Neill Blomkamp, and I was rooting for this movie to be good as much as anyone. But unfortunately, Chappie is a nearly unmitigated mess, with cartoonish characters, weakly written relationships, a nonsensical plot, and a complete lack of philosophical focus. It was still better than Elysium, and it may have contained nuggets of great things to come from Blomkamp, but it wasn't even a worthy successor to District 9, let alone a film of comparable quality.
The film started out promisingly, especially when it focused on Chappie as a character in his own right. Sharlto Copley's performance was note-perfect, and Chappie was not only adorable, but the only character who even approximated development. The really pleasurable moments of the film all involved Chappie learning about the world around him, particularly one highly amusing sequence in which Die Antwoord's Ninja tries to teach him how to "walk cool." ("Stop laughing, I'm being cool!")
But the human characters were all caricatures in the worst way; Hugh Jackman was a gun-toting, mullet-clad hick, Sigourney Weaver was stunt casting at its most blatant and barely even registered as a presence, and Die Antwoord were cookie-cutter crooks until they each abruptly shift gears to loving mother and self-sacrificing martyr, respectively. (And just to be clear, this shouldn't be confused with a genuine redemption arc, as their transformations were both completely unearned.)
Dev Patel was an extremely likable and relatable protagonist, but he was inexplicably shunted to the side as Die Antwoord's characters essentially took center stage. This was a mistake, as Patel is a patently talented actor, while Die Antwoord were fine, but overacted as much as you'd expect non-professional actors who are saddled with cartoonish roles. Furthermore, the relationship between Patel's "maker" and Chappie had the most potential to be interesting, and it was ultimately the least developed, to the point that it felt like many scenes between them had been cut.
Spoilers beyond this point!
For example, there's a scene in the middle of the film in which Chappie confronts Deon for placing him in a "body" that would "die" within one week. It's clearly supposed to be an emotionally charged scene filled with pathos, but it falls completely flat, mostly because we've barely seen them interact for the entire movie.
The only character who had any dimension to speak of was Chappie himself, but the film was barely even interested in developing him. In the same confrontation scene, there was a moment in which Deon says, "How could I have known you would grow up to be- you?" And this is supposed to be a poignant moment of reflection for the audience, a payoff of all the character development that came before. But if that line was emotionally affecting, it's only as a result of Sharlto Copley's wonderful performance and abundant personality, because the writing of the character is relatively weak. His motivations are portrayed as entirely linear; Deon tells him not to commit crimes, so he doesn't want to commit crimes. Ninja says self-preservation is of the utmost importance, so Chappie commits crimes. After the nuanced social and philosophical examination that was District 9, Blomkamp has managed to write a film about artificial intelligence that somehow fails to explore whether a "sentient" robot gets his motivations from himself, his programming, or other outside influences. Slight oversight.
Which brings us to the next problem. I would have forgiven a lot of the softer spots of the script, from the lack of character development to a plot that relies on a childlike AI somehow figuring out how to digitally copy and transfer consciousness. But while Blomkamp said throughout his press tour that this was a movie about "the soul" and "consciousness," that's exactly what it wasn't. It didn't explore any of the philosophical ramifications of making an AI that has emotions, of transferring consciousness, of potential immortality. At the end of the film, Deon's consciousness is transferred to a robot body. But is the robot still Deon? Is a person's identity connected to his or her body? If a person can be copied into many different robot bodies, then is his or her consciousness "split," or are they all distinct entities with the same thought processes and personality? The film doesn't even pretend to be interested in these questions.
Instead, by the end of the film, Chappie has devolved into a wannabe Michael Bay movie, complete with explosions, big robots being upstaged by bigger robots, and an emotionally empty and pointless physical knockdown of the antagonist. Blomkamp seems to have a real weakness for video game-style action sequences in which men control a huge robot and smash things, but I don't share that weakness. In fact, I thought that was the cheesiest part of Elysium and the only major flaw of District 9.
But, Chappie was still better than the cynically slick sci-fi blockbuster Elysium, because at least it was weird. That's it. It was so unbelievably weird and quirky, that even when it didn't land (which was most of the time), it reassured me that Blomkamp's unique vision is alive and well. If he could just resist his apparently overwhelming urge to see a man get into a huge robot and start smashing things, then maybe he could begin to reproduce the dizzying success of District 9 in his future films.