Looking back at 2009, writer/director Neill Blomkamp generated a ton of buzz after releasing District 9 with his co-writer Terri Tatchell. Fast forward a couple years, and he released Elysium, which I actually enjoyed more than most, but it didn't come close to the greatness that was his first feature film. Now, we have Chappie. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the picture is that it doesn't have a single original bolt in its entire cybernetic body. It looks like Blomkamp is on a steep decline, and nobody should have to watch that.
Taking place in the near future, all crime is handled by an oppressive mechanized police force. When developer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) brings a police droid home to tweak the programming, he finds himself in between the crime world and ex-soldier, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who will do anything to take him down. Deon ultimately creates the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself. His name is Chappie.
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell tackle many of the same struggles and themes that we have come to expect from them. There always has to be a naive and oppressed species that must overcome prejudice and violence. In Chappie's case, it happens to be robots. While this is the central plot, there are an abundance of side stories, and each one of them is an absolute waste of time. The competitive cat-and-mouse game that evolves between Deon and Vincent is absurd. There isn't any real reason for Vincent to go to the lengths that he does. Unfortunately, this sucks up a large portion of the running time, but every minute of it should have been left on the cutting room floor. It's completely out of place. Chappie takes on a whole crime angle where the naive robot is raised by a group of criminals, who must complete one big heist in order to pay back a debt. The screenplay spends more time on these ridiculous sub-plots than it does on the central story, which creates for an uneven tone that feels unsure about whether it wants to be taken seriously or not. It's a complete mess.
Despite the fact that the film is titled after the robot, it's an absolute shame that the plot rarely follows him on his journey of confusion, as he struggles to understand the world around him. Rather, it spends the majority of the running time following Deon and criminals Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), Ninja (Ninja), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). They feel more like characterizations than they do actual characters. This is an issue that's deeply rooted in the screenplay, and would require practically an entire rewrite to fix. Blomkamp and Tatchell are trying to move in multiple directions at once, making Chappie feel like it's trying to be several different films at the same time. Everything about this feature contradicts itself, making for a moviegoing experience that's both exhausting and excruciating.
Despite all of its weaknesses, Chappie has one particular strength that Blomkamp simply never capitalizes on, and that would be Chappie himself. The police droid proves to be tremendously likable, and the audience comes to genuinely care for his well-being. His attempts to discover what defines consciousness is authentic, as are his innocent attempts to learn about humanity and how the world works. There's something infectious about the way that he explores his surroundings. Unfortunately, Blomkamp places his focus on the human characters and the inevitable action scenes, which seem to come right out of a Michael Bay flick. Chappie would have been much more effective as a sci-fi drama with hints of action. By allowing the film to flow naturally with its emotional roots, this would be a much more cohesive film. Unfortunately, it has ended up feeling stiff and contrived.
Chappie surprisingly suffers from the problem of overacting. Nearly every human character suffers from this, with the exception of Dev Patel, who has his share of intimate moments in the role of Deon Wilson. Unfortunately, Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja are practically screaming every word of their dialogue. They overact to the point where Chappie feels more like a B-movie, and less like a studio film. The casting here is quite dreadful. Fortunately, Sharlto Copley playing Chappie is extremely effective. He gives the character a real sense of personality that provides the film with a piece of the puzzle that would have been missing otherwise.
Even when Blomkamp doesn't deliver on the screenplay, he always manages to bring something visually beautiful to the screen, and Chappie is no exception. The environments that the film takes place in are wonderfully crafted, and Chappie's character design is absolutely brilliant. However, expect to see a lot of cues that feel far too similar to RoboCop. Otherwise, this is a film that successfully brings the audience into a near future where a robotic police force is commonplace. While this film certainly isn't mentally stimulating, it certainly looks great.
There's a great story buried deep down inside of Chappie, but it's cluttered by an abundance of one-dimensional human characters and ridiculous sub-plots. It's a chaotic mess of several different films trying to fit into two hours. Everything about Blomkamp's third feature is so loud and obnoxious, you'll be left practically begging for everything to be taken down a notch. As a character study, this could have been a strong piece of storytelling, but it ultimately feels more like a Michael Bay movie and less like something that came from the same mind as District 9. If you're looking to satisfy a science fiction craving, there's plenty of better stuff out there. This is a steep decline in Neill Blomkamp's career that he will hopefully recover from. Chappie is missing more than a few bolts and screws. Skip it.