Dodgy accents, weird tonal inconsistencies and Die Antwoord: Chappie is Neil Blomkamp's most South African film yet. There is some good news, however...
Now, I know there's probably no such thing as the "ministry of tourism" but a) I can't help but think of government in Orwellian terms and b) this weird Bizarro-world South Africa presented in the film probably has one so why shouldn't we?
To backtrack a little, the plot of Chappie is simple enough: something like three months in the future, Johannesburg is so utterly overrun by crime (hard to imagine, I know) that an international corporation sees an opportunity to introduce an army of robo-cops to the street of Joburg to clean up crime once and for all. With their tough robotic armour, chilling efficiency and advanced artificial intelligence, these robot policemen seem to offer the perfect solution for violent crime. As is the nature of these stories though, once the creator of these incredible machines inserts a program into one of the robot law-enforcers that was critically damaged in the field that grants it not just artificial intelligence but real consciousness, things start to get a whole lot more complicated. Especially once a rival engineer gets wind of this miraculous discovery and a group of rap-artists-turned-criminals hijack the malfunctioning machine with its nascent, baby-like "mind".
The "exotic" South African location aside - and, oh, so much more on that later - nothing in this is remotely new to anyone with even a passing knowledge of science fiction, who can also probably see the inherent problem of effectively melding together two such divergent films as Short Circuit and Robocop. Both involve sympathetic robots, to be sure, but while one is a viciously violent and very adult satire, the other is a squeeky clean and very cute family comedy adventure. You kind of have to admire Blomkamp's chutzpah then, even as you scoff at his hubris and laugh at his failures, at trying to make a movie that taps equally heavily into Johnny 5's cuteness and Robocop's viciousness. The result, as you may have guessed, is a hideous clusterfuck of kid-friendly robo-antics and grizzly, gritty violence that serves precisely no one.
Unfortunately, that's only the beginning of the film's many, many problems. It's poorly paced, with creaky dialogue and a meat-headed approach to its scifi trappings that constantly abandons intelligence and intriguing ideas for increasingly ludicrous action scenes. I've nothing against ludicrous action scenes, you understand, I do have a problem though when those same ludicrous action scenes always seem like the safe option by a filmmaker who is perfectly happy to bring up philosophical quandries about the very thing that makes us human - our consciousness - but is clearly absolutely terrified of actually doing anything more than gesturing at them. Again the comparisons to Robocop are unavoidable. While Robocop was even more violent and action-heavy than Chappie, it used its violence and bloody, offal-splattered mayhem to actually explore its subject and to even say something about human existence.
I may be misremembering things but I remember coming across a number of interviews with Blomkamp where he basically admitted that he loves coming up with the concepts for his films, but he finds actually writing and directing them to be arduous, unenjoyable experiences. And, honestly, with each passing film that's becoming more and more apparent in the work itself. There's also the real sense that he still hasn't quite figured out how to properly explore those concepts in the films he ends up making.
As for the film's characters and the actors that portray them, things get even more interesting. While there isn't a well-developed character in the bunch, the actual performances are rather less uniform. On the purely good side, we have Dev Patel who brings oodles of warmth and heart to a character that barely deserves it and Sigourney Weaver who brings her usual class and scifi-specific expertise to a character that's barely in the film. On the "crazy but in a good way" side of things, we have Hugh Jackman who fully relishes the chance to shed his usually heroic and/ or thoroughly decent persona for the film's chief villain and whose evil is hilariously and daftly captured in the fact that he is basically an Australian redneck wearing the attire of South Africa's lowest form of white trash, all topped off with a hideous, anachronistic mullet. He's mad, he's daft and he's really good fun and he is easily - by a mile - the best thing about the film
On the iffy-to-bad side of things, I'm afraid to say that's it's the South African actors that fare the worst. In some cases, it's certainly their fault but almost as often it's just that they are inhibited by Blomkamp's weird vision of South Africa and Johannesburg, in particular.
Now, it needs to be said that though I have lived in Johannesburg my entire life, I have lived a nice white middle-class existence and like most of us living a nice white (or, for the past couple of decades at least, black) middle class existence, I live and work a world (but just a couple of miles) away from the urban city-life depicted in the film. I do, however, live close enough to this world to know that, prevalent crime and horrendous poverty aside, no part of Johannesburg has anything to do with what is portrayed in Chappie.
Watching Chappie, I was left with a seemingly endless list of questions - virtually none of it having to do with the film's quickly abandoned themes or even its basic plot but about Blomkamp's weird, weird vision of the country and city in which he apparently once lived. Why, for example, is Hippo, the film's chief gangster, a white dude who talks with a full-on and very heavy black accent? Why is Joburg-central shown to be populated by a vast majority of white people? And why the bloody hell does Chappie talk with a "Cape Coloured" accent (note to international readers: "coloured" in South Africa refers specifically to people of mixed, black and white heritage and is not derogatory and not, as far as I know, an outdated term) when no one he encounters has anything close to that accent!?
Sharlto Copley, incidentally, is perfectly good as the titular character (mo-cap strikes again!) but the character himself, especially with his funny, but weirdly out of place accent, annoys as often as he endears.
And then, finally, saving the absolute worst for last, is Die Antwoord. Not only can these two white gangster rappers not act their way out of paper bag, their characters are fingernails-on-blackboard irritating AND they have by far the most screen time of all the film's human actors. While Yolandi's infantile act is screechingly bad, she's a million times better than her partner-in-crime - and I really can't believe I actually have to refer to him this way - Ninja.
He's a ghastly actor, with little to no screen presence, playing a thuggish and thoroughly obnoxious character that no one in their right mind would want to spend any time with at all. The idea that the two of them are basically playing themselves (albeit terribly) is more disturbing than I can possibly explain. I can't comment on their music (which forms pretty much the entire sountrack to the film) as, with very few exceptions, I don't really get or like rap and/or hip-hop but they're apparently very highly thought of in their primary, chosen field and I can only hope that they stick to "white gangster rap" from now on.
I know I'm being harsh about a film that is at least largely watchable and even occasionally quite enjoyable- especially when Die Antwoord aren't on screen - but I can't help but be influenced by my disappointment in Blomkamp, a guy who I still think has some actual potential as a genre director but whose track record has only gotten worse with each film he's released. District 9 was far from a perfect film but it was good and it was filled with promise of an exciting new scifi filmmaker - and one from my own country no less! It's just heartbreaking to see how far he's fallen in just two films. I'm not quite ready to give up on Blomkamp yet but I am starting to think his Alien 5 (or is that Aliens 2?) is really going to be his make-or-break project. On the plus side though, considering how far that particular franchise has fallen, the bar he has to reach, if not surpass, is not particularly high.
In the meantime, feel free to check out Short Circuit or, better yet, Robocop (the original obviously) instead of wasting your hard-earned cash on a film that is, at best, only sporadically entertaining.