I’m guessing Neill Blomkamp has never said “Stop me if you’ve heard this before."
If someone else had made it, Chappie might have just looked like a not-bad, somewhat derivative, side-take on Robocop (except that we already got that last year). What have we got? Slums full of criminal warlords? Check. Sinister-but-cheap corporations with lots of tech and open plan offices? Check. Plot precipitated by criminal stupidity? Featuring actual criminals? Protagonist turning into something he wasn’t? Protagonist getting massively boned by his own employers’ indifference to anything but profit? Protagonist getting chased down by huge bellowing ex-military psycho bell-end with way too much weaponised technology? Sharlto Copley? Check, check, checkedy check.
Yup, if you only see one Neill Blomkamp movie, stop. The others are the same movie. And the best is the first, District 9. But let’s go forward on the basis that you’re like me and you’ve gone to see all of them because your optimism module is bigger than your learning-from-experience circuit. What’s Chappie got going for it?
More high powered stars than District 9. Hugh Jackman’s playing the baddie. Sigourney Weaver is in it, sort of. Dev Patel’s playing the only half way normal human being. If none of them have actually won Oscars, they’ve been nearby when they happened to other people. (Of course Elysium had two people with Oscars of their very own…). Chappie’s also got Die Antwoord, who are the answer to the question “Does South Africa need white rappers?” though not necessarily the right answer. Ninja and Visser have to carry quite of a lot of the character work in the movie, and even put up against a robot with Sharlto Copley delivering gravelly baby talk, they’re still rappers. When actual actor Dev Patel gets into shot, Blomkamp seems to have been telling him “go broad, go hammy, here’s some terrible dialogue” in an effort to level the playing field. Ninja and Visser aren’t terrible, but they’re sitting in the movie like the result of some kind of in-joke which is only going to make sense in South Africa.
Come to think on it, Blomkamp’s South Africa’s a curiously white-looking place; my best guess is that in a movie where nearly everyone is a rampaging dickhead, he was uncomfortable making the black population of South Africa look like malevolent ass-clowns who needed to be policed by killer robots. The jarring result is that Johannesburg’s entire underworld seems to be run by wiggers, as though all the white folks lost their jobs and had to turn to street crime when apartheid ended. Given the outcry he faced when District 9’s second string bad guys were Nigerian warlords, I can see how Blomkamp would be getting gunshy, but still ….
How about the robots? Well, say one thing about Neill Bomkamp; he does robots doing violence like nobody else. Whenever he turns the knob around to “hell breaks loose, with robots”, the patently impossible becomes much more believable than the quiet bits either side. Chappie’s robots are first rate, scuffed up and tangible even though in your rational mind you know that they have to be some kind of CGI.
Things which don’t make a lick of sense; 100 robots is a big sale for Tetravaal, so Jo’burg’s robot police force is probably measured in the hundreds, yet when everything goes to crap and all the crime-fighting robots go off line, the SA police mobilises 150,000 reservists to plug the gap. What, now? Johannesburg is a big city, but it’s not that big. You can police the whole of Ireland with about 12,000 largely unarmed lads. It’s not just that more than ten times that many seems like a hell of a lot of policeman for somewhat fewer citizens; it’s the whole notion that the SA police force even HAS 150,000 reservists. The book strength of the US National Guard is about 350,000; it was a big goddam deal that Iraq forced them to mobilise about 180,000 of them. Methinks that Neill is pulling his numbers out of his ass. And let’s not even get into the sheer rampaging insanity of spending a fortune on robot cops for South African townships when unemployed South Africans are both cheap and plentiful and you could throw hundreds of them at the problem for every robot you bought.
In the end, the frustrating thing about Chappie is that it’s not the movie it could be. When Paul Verhoeven made Robocop he was making a point about the alienation of modern America and the growth of corporate power. When Blomkamp made his Robocop (Come on. there are robot cops. There’s a vast horrible robot called the Moose which might as well have been ED 209…) he seems to have wanted to make a point about the nature of what it really means to be a person and how we connect with the people around us. That’s an idea which should be explored, not exploded.