This certainly was a mixed bag. On one hand, it was great to see Neill Blomkamp return to a lot of the elements that made District 9 so great, but on the other hand it really felt like there were too many concepts to be told within a two hour time frame, which helped it feel really rushed despite a good, brisk pace. I’m not sure if I would say that it doesn’t know what it’s trying to be, so much as it doesn’t know exactly how to communicate it.
There is a lot to enjoy here. Blomkamp is adept at making Johannesburg look wildly alive, yet rapidly decaying at the same time. The characters are loud and flamboyant in a world where appearances would seem to be the least of people’s worries. The demeanors of Ninja, Yolandi and those around them add a ton of humor (dark as some of it may be), which I didn’t expect. But there is so much levity, it sometimes threatens to tip the scales away from the larger points the (scattershot) narrative seems to be making.
The visual effects are spectacular, and the team behind them deserve a ton of credit for making Chappie such a great and sympathetic character. In place of being able to read his eyes, it is instead his ears that do most of his emoting, and they do a hell of a job. Chappie has much to say once he learns the language, but even if he were rendered mute, he would still be able to convey much wit his ears and body language. That he is trussed up to be more like his gangster “parents” adds even more to his look, as he is every bit as vibrant as his surroundings. In a way, he is a solid metaphor for the movie as a whole, a mishmash of damaged parts aspiring to become something greater.
Chappie is a story of the first truly intelligent A.I., but doesn’t dwell on that notion or its implications. It draws an exaggerated parallel to current times with regards to such weaponized law enforcement, but doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the the effects of a police state, either. Perhaps because those concepts are well-worn, but it’s hard to tell. Themes of vanity, the nature of humanity and autonomy are dealt with, but it seems, oddly enough, to be mostly a film about parenting and how your choices and environment contribute to who your children will become. It also appears to make a point about spending too much time playing video games and desensitizing oneself, but I may be misreading that.
I really enjoyed Dev Patel as the mind behind the Scout robots and the man responsible for bringing Chappie to life. His desire to keep his creation pure in such an impure world was conveyed expertly, and he pulls off admirable chemistry with a CGI robot. Hugh Jackman does well in a role I found a bit confusing, as he is willing to shut down the scouts and allow scores of people to die in order to get his own bot greenlit for police use, becoming an outright villain in a narrative featuring street thugs corrupting, essentially, the mind of a child for the purpose of getting money to pay off a crime lord. Jackman does a good job, but from a motovational standpoint, his character threw me off.
I really like Blomkamp’s style of filmmaking. It’s visceral, engaging and meaningful, especially considering his genge preoccupations. I hope his next film has a bit more focus, so it can shine as brightly as his debut.