Nothing in Chappie works. Aggressively maudlin, staggeringly stupid, and shockingly dull, the film is a bust right from the start, a movie whose failures lie directly in its very conception and premises. It’s a film where not one character’s motivation makes sense, where logic is unwelcome and where easy cliches do all the work for the story. It’s not an interesting failure, it’s not over-ambitious - Chappie is just a bad movie.
Right from the start you know you’re in trouble. It begins in media res - but with talking heads in a doc. These talking heads say how important Chappie is and how they never imagined they would see something like this in their lifetime, and then the movie jumps back 18 months, spans the course of a week and never again returns to these talking heads or addresses the context of what they’re saying. It’s sloppy and bad, and it’s the hallmark of the whole film.
In the near future the police force of Johannesburg, South Africa has either been replaced or reinforced (it’s not entirely clear - the movie makes it seem like there are maybe 200 robot cops, but then acts like there’s nothing but robot cops) by ‘scouts’ - humanoid robot cops with rudimentary AI. They’re the brainchild of Dev Patel’s Deon Wilson who, despite being the driving force behind this astonishing innovation, doesn’t even get his own office. He’s trapped in a cubicle.
Deon’s cubicle is just down the aisle from Vincent Moore’s. You know Vincent is a bad guy because he carries a gun all the time and he goes to church; he’s designed a bigger, uglier, more of an ED-209 rip-off called Moose, but no police force wants a robot designed to blow up aircraft. The big difference between Moose and the scouts is that Moose is controlled by a human operator, a moral and responsible human who makes judgment calls before killing people (the scouts are able to shoot the fuck out of people at will, we see). The film decides that this is a bad idea - Chappie proceeds from the idea that independent AI acting as a police force with a license to kill is the best solution.
Right from the premise the movie is fucked; Vincent hates Deon because the scouts are a success and nobody wants this cluster-bomb shooting monstrosity. Somehow Sigourney Weaver, playing the CEO of the corporation, never realized that the Moose is a military device; instead of offering it to the many militaries of the world she keeps cutting Vincent’s funding, driving him to the brink of madness. Watching the two try to sell this thing to the Joburg police I wondered how closely Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote the movie, watched Robocop when ripping it off - sure, the ED-209 is being rolled out for urban pacification, but Omni Consumer Products already has military contracts in the offing. The whole deployment of the ED-209 in Detroit was an ill-considered test run for the droid’s actual function - warfare. Vincent’s too stupid to even think that far ahead, though. He's also too stupid to realize that threatening Deon WITH A GUN IN AN OFFICE FULL OF PEOPLE is a bad idea. The movie is too stupid to recognize this as well.
Meanwhile, Deon is programming a sentient AI at home. When Sigourney Weaver won’t give him permission to load it up into a destroyed scout (which seems like the wrong first step already - why not run the AI on a computer and interact with it there? Why immediately jump to giving it physical autonomy?) he steals the scrapheap, intending to experiment on his own. But he ends up being kidnapped by Irritating Art School Gangstas Die Antwoord, playing Die Antwoord, listening to Die Antwoord music and wearing Die Antwoord shirts. They need major money to pay back a gangster (who Blomkamp has wisely made not black, after learning his lesson in District 9. He still kills the only black character in the movie in the opening scene anyway) and they have a convoluted plan to take out the scouts so they can rob unmolested. They end up being the caretakers of the AI-infused robot, naming him Chappie, and ushering him into an understanding of his own consciousness.
Chappie himself is excellent looking. This is visual FX operating at the highest level; I don’t know if there was ever a puppet Chappie, or if every shot of Chappie is CGI, and it doesn’t matter. The droid is real and present and I never once questioned his physicality. I questioned every other thing about him, but never his existence in physical space.
Blomkamp seems to have no real interest in AI or robotics; when Chappie first turns on with his new consciousness (called “Consciousness.dat”) he’s a scared animal, cowering behind a table. Why? Why would this robot have an understanding of fear? Of pain? Later the movie has lengthy sequences of Chappie being tormented and tortured, hit with rocks and his arm cut off. What does it matter? The robot can’t feel it. It’s part of the movie’s cheap and easy manipulation - by having Chappie first behave as an abused puppy and then as a cute kid (who is learning to speak. Why Deon didn’t give his AI a vocabulary I’ll never understand) Blomkamp leans on lazy visual shorthand to make us like him. It never worked for me - I found the robot to be alternately whiny and annoying.
Chappie’s journey - especially a baffling sequence where Die Antwoord’s scabrous front man Ninja leaves him among a group of (black) toughs as a test? - would make for a great music video. Removed from any sort of logical framework many of the images Blomkamp shares are striking; the robot, engulfed in flame from a molotov cocktail, running from his assailants is astonishing, and maybe as the backdrop for some kind of Daft Punk track it would, in five minutes, have enough illusion of meaning to make us all feel really moved and give us a moment’s pause. But as a scene in a movie it doesn’t work, and little that Chappie does or says makes any actual sense.
That wouldn’t be a problem if the other characters around Chappie were compelling, or even watchable. Blomkamp has made the bizarre choice to have Die Antwoord as his leads, getting more screen time than anyone but Chappie, and to open the movie with them shooting cops in the head. Note that these aren’t some sort of dystopian cops who are harshly oppressing - they’re chasing Die Antwoord after a robbery. These art school gangstas live in an abandoned factory where they spray paint everything in bright colors and make their own t-shirts all the time and make dolls of themselves and also sell drugs. The most interesting thing about these phony street kids is that Ninja has a tattoo of Casper with a huge boner, and I kept wondering how that would be dealt with for the TV/airline version of this piece of crap movie.
The film slows down in the second act to become a heavy handed metaphor for being artistic and different. This metaphor is achieved by making Chappie artistic and different. It’s also achieved by having Deon tell him to nurture his creativity, and by having Ninja tell him that being artistic and different isn’t cool and that he shouldn’t play with dolls. It’s thudding stuff, just someone’s dumb Tumblr rant about fostering creativity enacted with a robot. It’s all so obvious that it plays like an adaptation of a motivational poster (motivational posters play an actual important plot point in this film). This is Neill Blomkamp laid bare, a guy who has no way of articulating what he’s trying to say except by saying it plainly. He’s made a movie that’s a feature length aphorism.
All of Blomkamp’s other problems are on display in Chappie. The film is well shot, and has some truly astonishing action moments, but it also has plenty of great shots and ideas that fall flat because they’re devoid of emotion. As a storyteller he’s proving himself increasingly inept - he has no control of tone or theme. The film jolts back and forth between maudlin and cartoonish and dark, sometimes in the same scene, and it doesn’t work. It’s too complex for a guy who is all visuals.
And his themes… if Neill Blomkamp made The Iron Giant it would end with the robot viciously tearing through the Army. That film is clearly an influence on Chappie, as the robot struggles with whether or not to be a weapon, but in the end Blomkamp can’t decide either way, and he has Chappie beat a bad guy to the edge of death while shouting ‘No more violence!,’ which is actually insane, and which is presented as a fist-pumping moment of righteous vengeance. This ending is so morally confused that I can’t believe it was ever even shot - did no one look at the script and ask Blomkamp what the fuck he was thinking?
When District 9 came out we were hungry for a visionary, an auteur who could do original science fiction with a message but also give us thrilling action, a guy who proved that blockbusters didn’t just have to be Transformers movies. Two films later it’s become very clear that guy isn’t Neill Blomkamp; instead Blomkamp is the victim of the auteur theory, a casualty of our need for visionaries. Too much has been placed on him, and too much freedom has been given him to make movies from frustratingly undercooked scripts with grade school social messages. It’s hard to imagine that Blomkamp could make a film worse than Elysium, but here we are. Chappie plays like a shitty remake of Robocop done in the style of Neill Blomkamp, an internet parody on the level of those “What if Wes Anderson made a genre film?” shorts.