Posted on Thursday, March 5th, 2015 by Angie Han
Following the Oscar-nominated District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore effort Elysium proved a major disappointment. Even Blomkamp himself knows it, and his recent admission that he “fucked it up” by pressing ahead with a script that “just wasn’t there” seemed like an encouraging step in the right direction.
But acknowledging your mistakes isn’t the same thing as figuring out how to avoid them. Unfortunately, Chappie indicates that, like the childlike protagonist that gives the film its name, Blomkamp still has a lot to learn. Read our full Chappie review after the jump.
Chappie unfolds in near-future Johannesburg, where a robot police force has just been mobilized. The so-called Scouts are the creation of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), whose latest extracurricular project is an AI program.
He’s eventually able to install an AI program into a damaged Scout, but the result — Chappie, voiced by Sharlto Copley — falls into the hands of three criminals (played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of Die Antwoord, plus Jose Pablo Cantillo) who want Chappie to help them pull off a heist.
Meanwhile, Deon’s colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman) is pissed off because the popularity of Deon’s Scouts means their boss (a sorely underused Sigourney Weaver) has no use for Vincent’s invention, a massive human-controlled crime-fighter called The Moose.
Death by a Thousand Plot Holes
District 9 established Blomkamp as a wildly ambitious visionary, and he’s still a big thinker. It’s the little stuff he sucks at. The larger story is positively riddled with plot holes, and any sense of subtlety seems to have fallen right through them.
From the beginning, the story makes no sense. There’s no good reason why Deon has to install his AI in Chappie, kicking off a string of crazy events, rather than in one of the several other robots littering his living room. Or why Vincent is able to pull a gun on Deon in the middle of the workday without so much as a reprimand from his boss.
There’s also no explanation as to why the city of Johannesburg deemed it unnecessary to devise a backup plan in case their robo-cop program went awry, or what the criminals thought they’d accomplish by letting Deon go shortly after kidnapping him. None of these are deal-breakers on an individual basis, but collectively they snap the suspension of disbelief.
As Subtle As a Robot Battle
Blomkamp’s disinterest in the finer points doesn’t end there. He’s never been one for subtlety. This was less of an issue in District 9, where his bluntness was smoothed over by solid storytelling, but it’s much harder to ignore in the clumsy Chappie.
Every single character in Chappie consists of one note played at top volume. Vincent isn’t just a villain, he’s a volatile psychopath who’ll happily sacrifice hundreds of others for his own professional gain. Yo-Landi isn’t just nurturing, she becomes Chappie’s devoted mother about five minutes after meeting him.
This lack of nuance applies even to Chappie himself, who can be summed up in a single word: “childlike.” By that, I mean he’s amazed by everything, and likes kids’ books and toys. But real children still have personalities and quirks and preferences, whereas Chappie is modeled after the most generic movie kid imaginable.
Characters repeatedly insist he’s the first robot who can think and feel for himself, but he doesn’t, really. He believes everything he’s told, parrots everything he hears, and mimics everything he sees. He’s so impressionable, in fact, that we never get a good sense of who Chappie is outside of his human influences.
Naturally, the thudding obviousness extends to the dialogue as well. Blomkamp can’t be bothered to whisper when he can shout, so Chappie spells everything out with blunt lines like “Why did you make me to die?” and “This is some fuckup.”