Director Neill Blomkamp is turning out to be a real disappointment. As his career progresses, it’s becoming very apparent that he’s stuck in a creative rut, unable to recreate the success of his debut with District 9 because he’s doing little more than emulating his previous work. At least with District 9 there was some allegorical subtext that remained consistent throughout the whole film, even when it devolved into pure action spectacle rather than retain its earlier tone and intelligence. Blomkamp’s follow up, Elysium, was little more than a restructuring of District 9’s themes into a suspiciously similar sci fi setting, but didn’t retain the direct allegory that made District 9 substantive. Now we have Chappie, where we return to Johannesburg to take a look at culture clash, but without any coherent themes to support its high concept premise.
Our story begins as Johannesburg implements a robotic police force in order to fight back against gang violence. The inventor of these robots thinks he can create true artificial intelligence, and runs a secret operation separate from the weapons contractor who employs him. When he is captured by three thugs (two of whom are notably played by Ninja and Yolandi of rap group Die Antwoord), he is forced to activate his AI in the body of a damaged police robot, the idea being that this robot can help them in an upcoming heist. Thus Chappie is born, and his coming of age story begins.
There is actually a lot of potential to this premise, as Chappie is raised by Ninja and Yolandi separate from his creator, and the conflict that arises is intriguing. Yolandi recognizes that Chappie is little more than a child, and seeks to nurture his creativity. Meanwhile, Ninja wants to make a warrior of Chappie, attempting to stop Chappie’s emotional development in favor of teaching him to fight and tricking him into killing. This functions as a reflection of how many young boys are raised, with masculine ideals forced upon them at the expense of their creativity and empathy.
Alas, the film abandons that thematic momentum by the time the third act rolls around, as Chappie becomes fixated on preserving his own consciousness while simultaneously fighting against a world that wants to destroy him by virtue of his very existence. This should feel familiar if you’ve seen District 9, and it is a huge thematic shift to make so late in the film, completely derailing any investment one had in seeing how the conflict between Chappie’s burgeoning humanity and his parental influences pans out. Instead, we’re treated to some truly benign action sequences against a bland corporate villain, followed up by a completely nonsensical epilogue that borders on cringeworthy.
Neill Blomkamp doesn’t seem to know what to do with his success, as his last two films have only tweaked elements of his freshman effort, only to have those tweaks completely backfire as they destroy the delicate balance of what made District 9 any good in the first place. He is a man fascinated by big ideas, but doesn’t know how to implement them in compelling ways without resorting to action tropes or losing sight of his original objective. Chappie is just a slip further down the slope of what is turning out to be an ideologically hollow career for Mr. Blomkamp.
Blomkamp’s next project is going to be an Alien sequel in the spirit of the franchise’s first two films. Will working on source material that isn’t his own save Blomkamp’s career? Or are we doomed to another lackluster Alien outing? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.