It is crazy to look now at writer/director Neill Blomkamp and the scrutiny he is under since his first film, District 9, wowed most audiences and made him an instant sensation. There were rumors of him taking on a Halo movie or even a sequel to Alien, and while one of those became true, it seems like the favor that Blomkamp gained with his first film has deteriorated at a strikingly fast pace.
I’ll admit first: I didn’t like Elysium. It seems blown out of proportion and almost felt like Blomkamp didn’t know what to do when he got his hands on more money. So that brought tepid excitement for Chappie, which first was revealed in trailers to be some sort of possible satire or comedy. The talking robot trying to act gangster. It seemed like something bizarre yet fantastic. But the corresponding trailers painted it as another action set piece and the excitement waned.
But as I watched Chappie, it became apparent that this comedy was still there. The fish out of water perspective was still rich and the fact that Die Antewood was getting a major role made it even more bizarre yet fantastic. Add in a completely over the top villain in Hugh Jackman (as well as the dreadlocked maniac), some funny antics by the robot, and some surprisingly exhilarating action sequences throughout, Chappie became more of a pleasant surprise in the face of stark criticism and is much simpler than even the story would like to admit.
Chappie follows a robot who was built to be one of the police drones that were commissioned in South Africa to work as peacekeepers. Much like the plot of RoboCop, the peacekeeping had worked and the city was ordering more drones. But their designer, Deon (Dev Patel), saw a potential for more artificial intelligence within the robots and decided to pursue this idea against the will of his boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver).
Deon’s success with the drones had also rubbed one of his co-workers, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), the wrong way as he wanted the government to consider his own design rather than asking for more of Deon’s drones to protect the city.
The comparison to RoboCop is clear between that film and Chappie and the latter may have done a better job of adapting the mood and themes of the 1987 classic than last year’s reboot with Joel Kinnamon ever could. Chappie dives into that underbelly that is described when the news outlets are talking about what crime was like before the drones and what happened after. It is shown more when a shakedown between the main characters, Ninja and Yolandi (Die Antwoord), and their buyer goes south. The might of the drones is shown and their use for city crime seems to make them unstoppable, much like RoboCop was.
Where Chappie steers from this comparison is in the character. The story is billed as this touching insight into the human existence and Blomkamp attempts to parallel Chappie’s creativity to our own desire to make things and create new. But Blomkamp doesn’t exactly hit the mark he is looking for in this regard, instead, what works better with the character is his humor and his resilience against his maker to carve his own path.
In what could be looked at with a religious lens, Chappie strives to make new without the help of his maker, Deon, and shows that he doesn’t need him in order to move forward with his progression. This in turn helps Deon in the long run, but it is more convicting to cheer on Chappie for his intuitive programming rather than trying to see if he can become more of a human. This isn’t Pinocchio and his quest to be a human isn’t interesting. Instead, his desire to gain more knowledge and to develop his own path without the help of others, including his creator, is inspiring.
Chappie doesn’t reach as high as District 9, but it does show that Blomkamp has something left in the tank after many people abandoned ship after Elysium. That doesn’t mean he will conquer the new Alien film, but it does mean that he has the ability to do it. What the movie does show is that he has the skills as a director to bring entertaining characters and action to the screen, but his main obstacle could be finding a story or generating a theme that gets closer to the level of his first feature.