It’s still very early, but 2015 has thus far been a terrible year for sci-fi movies. Predestination was a nonsensical puzzle, Project Almanac was found-footage garbage at its most predictable, and Jupiter Ascending was just way too out there to be anything more than mindless entertainment. I can’t comment on Hot Tub Time Machine 2 because I (strategically) skipped it, but it was universally panned by critics. Surely Neill Blomkamp, the writer/director behind 2009’s excellent District 9, can swoop in and save the first three months of the year with his latest outing, right?
Sadly, the answer is no. Chappie is Blomkamp’s Lady In The Water. It’s the kind of film that’s so bad it makes you question the quality of his previous efforts. This is truly unfortunate, because in Blomkamp we have a filmmaker who loves to play around with big ideas–racism, income inequality, humanity–giving them sci-fi sheen without edging too far away from the actual issue at hand. It’s all the stuff of great science fiction, but even the most topical theme is trash without proper execution. Like Shyamalan before him, Blomkamp is beginning to display weaknesses in the storytelling department, and I don’t know if he can come out of this one.
Chappie has a lot of problems, but none of them are quite as sinful as the fact that it could have been great. For starters, the titular robot is a charming homage to Johnny Five, complete with expressive brows and a keen sense of innocence and discovery. The motion capture (and voice) performance from Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley is excellent, and Chappie the character is a joy to watch. It (he?) is funny, lovable, and easy to root for, and watching its (his?) journey into the real world could have easily been a tale of wonderment.
But Blomkamp doesn’t make movies like that. No, his version of sci-fi is grungy, ugly, and cruel. As entertaining as Chappie the robot may be, he’s bogged down by a hodgepodge of terrible supporting characters, a plot ripped away from Robocop, and one of the worst endings since…oh man, I’ve got nothing. Let me put it this ways: there may have been films with endings crappier than Chappie’s but I can’t think of any at the top of my head. It’s that bad.
And it get’s worse. For some strange reason, Blomkamp thought it would be a good idea to cast Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er from the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord as gangster versions of themselves. I’m not exaggerating this–the characters, played by Ninja and Yolandi, are named Ninja and Yolandi. Throughout the film they wear t-shirts with their faces on them and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack is occasionally halted for their music. This pseudo fourth-wall breakage is weird enough, so the fact that neither one of them can act just makes matters that much more distracting (and obnoxious). Novelty cameos are fine and all, but they’re play a major role in the movie, and occupy a majority of the screentime. It just doesn’t make any sense.
The “real actors” don’t fare much better, especially Hugh Jackman, who has never before been so terrible. It’s nice to see Dev Patel in a mainstream role, but his portrayal as Chappie’s maker is as dull as they come. And Sigourney Weaver, as the head of a robotic-weapons manufacturing firm, is effectively wasted. The best thing I can say about her role is that it’s better than Jodie Foster’s embarrassing, accent-shifting take in Elysium. It’s a sad day when the best actor in a film is Anderson Cooper.
There were moments in my viewing of Chappie where I wondered if all of this was meant to be satirical. Everything about it is incredibly overstated and exaggerated–not at all unlike the first Robocop and it’s more recent reboot. The difference, of course, is the fact that audiences went into those films expecting a particular level of silliness, all the while receiving commentary on the state of glorified violence. Chappie, on the other hand, has nothing of value to add to the conversation. It’s all just stupid.
Let’s take a step back and reflect on some recent movie news. Prior to the release of Chappie, it was announced that Blomkamp would be developing a brand new entry for the Alien franchise. Geeks everywhere rejoiced, film sites quickly and abruptly spit out speculation articles left and right, and Blomkamp’s Alien project became the topic of consistent updates.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the kind of marketing you just can’t buy with billboards and trailer spots, and the benefits are twofold, at least for Blomkamp. Not only does it build a significant amount of hype for his next set of movies, it distracts us from the sad reality of his limited filmmaking abilities. From this point onward, the general populace will associate Blomkamp as the guy who brought back Xenomorphs and Ellen Ripley–not as the hack who gave us Chappie.