It takes genuine, unfettered talent to produce an experience as depressingly unpleasant and ugly as Chappie. Whereas a studio hack might manage to crank out an ill-conceived, forgettable mess that mirrors this picture’s traffic jam of ideas and themes, only a talent as bright and promising as Neill Blomkamp is capable of dragging you into the chaos and provoking strong, repulsed emotional reactions. This is a sad case study of creative genius gone horribly awry, resulting in a punishing exercise in hubris that cockily swaggers across the line separating bad from flat out offensive.
How did we even wind up here? Back in 2009 when District 9 hit, Blomkamp seemed like an exciting powerhouse on the rise. Sure, there were warning signs of the writer/director’s action-over-thoughtfulness leanings present in that Oscar-nominated best picture contender, but his dedication to hard sci-fi trappings, grounded and intense fantastic imagery and technical virtuosity felt so fresh and invigorating. And while 2013’s bumpily scripted Elysium fell short of lofty expectations, there was nonetheless a lot to admire in the scrappy, Verhoeven-inspired crazed social commentary and hyper-violence.
The latest chapter in the helmer’s futuristic Johannesburg series (it would be nice to say final, however talk of a District 10 have recently started anew), Chappie again returns us to the dusty, despairing streets and crumbling dystopian urban decay of the large South African metropolis, where punky criminals battle it out in the streets and law enforcement depends solely on superior firepower. Fortunate, then, that weapons manufacturer Tetravaal has recently sold a line of shoot-first-ask-questions-later armored robots to the police department in an effort to subdue the explosion of anarchy. Designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), these mechanized peacekeepers prove exceedingly efficient in the war on crime, much to the chagrin of the increasingly frantic criminal population, as well as the young inventor’s unstable robotics engineer colleague Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who vehemently opposes the concept of justice being decided by machine minds.
As a work of special effects blended with performance, Chappie himself is utterly convincing. Photo-real, expressive and moving with recognizable weight and authentic clunkiness, he’s an instantly iconic character who quickly grabs our sympathy and affection. Which, strangely, becomes a serious issue and fundamentally breaks the movie before it even really gets going.
If Chappie is an ill-used conceptual triumph, the humans are a total lost cause. Patel exudes earnestness and intellectualism, but Deon is another one of those silver screen scientific wunderkinds who only make stupid decisions, while Jackman spends his hammy minimal screen-time glowering over his cubical wall, viewing events taking place mere feet away through binoculars and, most memorably, holding a gun to a coworker’s head in a crowded office with zero repercussions. As for Die Antwoord, they make credibly unsavory, obnoxious abusive movie parents you can’t wait to see eliminated. Too bad we’re actually supposed to root for them.
As awful as this disaster is, though, there’s still reason to believe Blomkamp can deliver the goods. Many A-list directors have stumbled badly after capturing greatness and achieving unprecedented power. Spielberg had his 1941, Ridley Scott made Legend and Peter Jackson bestowed upon mankind The Lovely Bones. Hollywood is a forgiving town, so hopefully the helmer can get his boundless potential and skill under control again and focus on a project that taps into what made him such a unique discovery in the first place. Because, lord knows, another malfunctioning miscalculation like Chappie could send anyone on a one-way trip to the career scrap compactor.
1 out of 5