I’ll say this much for director Neill Blomkamp: he has ideas. He has lots of them, and three feature films in to his career, he seems to want to experiment with all of them in the same narrow space – a dystopian near-future in which one of the big, scary problems facing us now is carried to a logical potential endpoint. Whether this is a feature or a bug overall, I can’t quite determine.
What I can say is that it’s a crippling system failure in his latest, Chappie. The South African returns to what you might consider his roots here. The film, like his stunning debut District 9, is set in his hometown, Johannesburg, South Africa. It again carves out a significant role for Sharlto Copley, who stars as the title character, a converted police drone who becomes sentient when its creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), uploads an artificial intelligence program in to his hardware. It is even set one year in the future from its release date, in an alternate 2016 where the natives of Johannesburg turn to police drones to combat a surging crime problem and where everyone except Patel and his boss, Sigourney Weaver, has an inexplicably bad haircut.
Like Blomkamp’s other films, the parable is obvious from the start – simple and admirable. It’s supposed to be easy to follow so you can spend most of your time ogling the creative, original special effects. He’s exploring the inevitability of AI as the next stage of human evolution, and the idea that this technology, just like any other, is only ever as good as we are.
Chappie spends much of his time with a small gang of criminals who kidnap him in hopes of using his ability to learn rapidly and his, you know, almost invincible metal body, to pull off a major heist. He refers to the erratic, violent Ninja (played by someone actually named Ninja) as his dad and Ninja’s girlfriend Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) as mom. He knows his creator is Deon.
Chappie is adequately cute, though my suspicion is Blomkamp was hoping for something more with his creation – intending for us to be deeply disturbed and distraught when he is mistreated by everyone from his own “parents” to street thugs to the likes of Hugh Jackman, the strait-laced big bad with the most distractingly bad haircut of all. (Perhaps the badness of the haircut correlates to the badness of the character? That theory wouldn’t pass muster with Weaver’s character, but the haircuts are enough to make you start coming up with explanations for them.)
We talk a lot around these parts about being taken out of a film by niggling little details, and at least in that regard, Chappie is one of 2015’s worst offenders. Blomkamp’s parable is, again, simple – though it pales in comparison to the much smarter, much leaner Ex Machina – but the actual story he tells is packed with noisy distractions. If Chappie can learn so quickly, why can’t he improve on his own programming instead of always relying on Deon? If he’s so smart, why can’t he learn the simple syntactical difference between “fuck mother” and “motherfucker” (funny the first time, annoying every time after)? And seriously, what is with all the bad hair?
There is still little doubt about Blomkamp’s vision – his ability to world-build like few other directors out there. But with District 9 an ever more distant memory, I’m starting to wonder if he has what it takes to tell a great story consistently.