In 2009, my world was rocked by the coming of a brand new filmmaker. Someone who made films with lots of meanings and metaphors, but also brought a fierce veracity to the screen. It felt as if the world had changed after I stepped out of the theater after attending "District 9," a little sleeper of a science fiction movie that came out of nowhere and blew the minds of people worldwide. I definitely was not the only one who felt the shift, all my friends sure did too. I thought Neill Blomkamp was going to be the next big thing in Hollywood, and it seemed he was going to breathe a new life into a genre that had not been itself for a good decade. In 2013, "Elysium" had arrived, the second directorial piece by Blomkamp, and I was highly anticipating it simply because it was new Blomkamp. If you remember my review of "Elysium," I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't fall head-over-heels in love with it like I did with "District 9." I felt that the metaphors Blomkamp was aiming for in "Elysium" were plentiful, but he did not deliver an overall message to understand them with. It almost seemed like Blomkamp was taking a handful of easy targets and showing them off. For what purpose though? I have stated many times that the best science fiction holds a mirror to our society and culture and forces the audience to think about it. With "Elysium," it seemed like Blomkamp had a lot on his mind, but just didn't know what to say about it.
Now in 2015, Blomkamp has delivered "Chappie." A brand new science fiction film dealing with the world of artificial intelligence. For his third movie, Blomkamp returns to his roots of Johannesburg, South Africa. While there are a couple of familiar faces in "Chappie," there are just as many South African-bred actors two, giving us the best of both worlds in terms of Blomkamp's hometown and Hollywood. Much like "Elyisum" though, Blomkamp is giving himself a lot to juggle seemingly for the sake of having a lot to juggle. With that said, I think "Chappie" is a highly entertaining movie. It has a surplus of captivating action, but just as many tender moments as well. "Chappie" also offers some of the most memorable characters Blomkamp has created thus far, and he casts an ensemble who are willing to bring these characters to life.
In the near future, South Africa will essentially become a robotic police state. The crime rates will become so overwhelming that ordinary police will not be able to stop the onslaught of terror that grips the nation. To counter the criminality, a weapons manufacturer will create "Scouts," which are robots designed to act as policemen. The "Scouts" are a huge success, thanks to their inventor Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) and soon the entire world wants their hands on them. Deon is an ambitious inventor and he has a plan to make the robots even better, robots with a conscience. But his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) has no wish to pursue this as she deems it un-needed.
When one lonely day, Deon is kidnapped, along with parts he took from his work to build the conscience robot. He is taken by Ninja (whose real name is Ninja) and Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), two thugs who owe a lot of money to a local crime lord. They want a robot that can help with with a heist to payoff their debts to the crime lord and thus Chappie (Sharlto Copley) is born.
"Chappie" is an outstanding, and during the entirety of the motion picture, breathtaking example of just how far visual effects have come in 2015. You see Chappie onscreen and you believe that is a real robot that Blomkamp captured with his camera. The results are that realistic, and it is a visual marvel during every single frame. But Chappie doesn't just work as clever computer work, Chappie is also believable through performance. When I first met Sharlto Copley in "District 9," I knew he was going to be a superstar one day, and he's pretty much almost there. Here, Copley proves that it doesn't matter if he's live action or doing motion capture work, this dude can create a believable character, and we identify with Chappie throughout the whole film.
Like I stated above, the character Ninja is portrayed by real-life South African rapper Ninja. His accomplice is really Yolandi who is really on the stage with the real Ninja. These two might be famous musicians in their mother country, but both of them steal the show in this movie. Their performances are so strange, yet so visceral at the same time. While I would argue that Chappie is easily the heart of the movie, its the interplay with Ninja and Yolandi that gives this movie its extra life. The work by Weaver and Patel is also very good. Hugh Jackman also shows up as Vincent, a power-hungry inventor who also wants his robots patrolling the streets and he will doing anything in order to obtain that power.
But like I said before, Blomkamp is all of sudden struggling with having too much to tackle on his plate. "District 9," worked because it was so simple and it fleshed out one particular metaphor. In "Chappie," it is tough to distinguish if Blomkamp is making a movie about our current culture and how we are edging closer to a police state, or making an "E.T." version of a robot movie, or making a gritty crime movie about the ugliness of South African slums, or making a movie about how business can easily turn into corruption. The thing is, it doesn't seem like Blomkamp knew what to make either, so he made one movie that was all of those things. While I feel "Chappie" gels better than "Elysium" did, much of the middle half of the movie gets boring simply due to the fact that there is no clear focus. I also believe that if it weren't for two major action set pieces, "Chappie" could have easily been a PG-13 rated movie, and the hyper-violence at some points almost felt out of place.
At the end of the day, I wonder if Blomkamp learned something from the backlash he got from "Elysium" because "Chappie" works much better. The visual effects are enough to catch this on the big screen. It is brought together by a tremendous group of actors and the action is big, gritty style that we are used to from Blomkamp. I still think there are some story structure kinks that Blomkamp has to work out, but this is a step in the right direction.
FINAL GRADE: B