I'm not into conspiracy theories,* but I wouldn't be surprised if the reason writer/director Neill Blomkamp tweeted concept art from his proposed Aliens sequel was not to drum up interest in his dream job--but to secure a next job, suspecting that Chappie would short circuit on opening weekend. It's mysterious, but not unprecedented. Remember M. Night Shyamalan's penchant for inking deals on the eve of such legendary bombs as Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender? It worked here, too: a couple weeks ago, Blomkamp announced that he and Sigourney Weaver will return for another deep-space safari, fueled by metric tons of cash and soon-to-be liquefied Fox executives.
Speaking of Short Circuit, if you've seen the 1986 Steve Guttenberg/Ally Sheedy sci-fi pseudo-classic, Blomkamp's latest is strictly a rental--bordering on a skip. If you haven't seen it, I still can't recommend Chappie, 'cause the film's R-rated and you're probably six years old.
In fairness, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell lift liberally from Robocop (both incarnations), Avatar, Dredd, and Prometheus--not to mention their own work on District 9 and Elysium. So I guess it's not fair to write them off as one-trick cribbers.
The movie stars Dev Patel as Deon, a rock-star robotics engineer working for a South African weapons contractor. Having developed an army of humanoid police drones (one might call them "robo-cops") that significantly reduced street crime, Deon takes a crack at artificial intelligence. A rival developer at the company (Hugh Jackman's awesomely mulleted Vincent) sees Deon's work as a threat to his own program, a less elegantly designed fleet of tanks on feet.
Elsewhere in the city, three spectacularly stupid gangbangers (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Yo-landi Visser, and Ninja--who plays Ninja) hit upon the idea of stealing and reprogramming a drone to help them pull off big-ticket heists. Lucky them, Deon's cutting-edge technology firm isn't so keen on surveillance cameras, secure parking lots, alerts on sensitive R&D materials, or de-activating the key cards of suspicious employees--meaning Ninja and his friends breezily kidnap Deon within minutes of his having stolen a decommissioned drone.
The gangbanbers coerce Deon into testing his AI program in their hideout. The droid boots up as a blank slate with an unprecedented capacity to absorb, process, and integrate information. They call this super-genius-metal-baby "Chappie", and set about teaching him the finer points of painting, reading, aiming pistols, and perfecting a common street thug's ape-like posture and casual coke-head-nose-swipe.
Thanks to the Internet, the Chappie character has already been dubbed this generation's Jar Jar Binks. It's true that, as voiced by Sharlto Copley, he's a shrill, simple goofball who adopts the worst mannerisms of his "parents"--but that's precisely the point Blomkamp and Tatchell want to make with their movie.
Jar Jar Binks annoyed me because he was ostensibly an adult character designed to pander to kids. Chappie is a kid. He literally transitions from birth-consciousness to late-teen-dom within the course of a week. Some degree of irritation and bad behavior are inherent in the concept, but so are tenderness, discovery, and maturity--which comprise the only effective fifteen minutes in the whole movie.
Chappie would have made a fascinating short about a scientist cracking AI in his apartment, and a nosy, colorful, yet understanding neighbor discovering his secret. As it stands, every scene not involving Patel and Visser (whose character becomes Chappie's de facto mum) works wonderfully. The actors evoke the wonder and horror of becoming God to a life-form that is at once dependent on them and capable of replacing mankind.
But the silliness keeps intruding. Because Chappie's original (or at least interesting) nuggets are buried so deeply in the homage salt mines, we are taxed with plowing through disparate elements that A) we've seen too many times to count and B) really don't belong together in a coherent narrative. For example, Weaver appears as the money-grubbing head of Deon's company. As drawn, Michelle Bradley is an executive so un-like anything that would rightfully exist in the real world--let alone the movies--that we quickly understand her as not only unintimidating but also inherently ridiculous. Let me get this straight: her top designer offers up free artificial intelligence on a silver platter, and she rewards him with an aggressive lack of interest in the project. Okay...
Then there's Jackman's character. Aside from Chappie and the fleeting dynamic with his parents, Vincent is the highlight of the film. A brilliant engineer in his own right and a former soldier, his jealousy and suspicion of Deon is palpable and understandable. Yet he plays the good-natured office politician so perfectly that I couldn't wait to see how he'd factor into Chappie's fate. I got my hopes up for nothing, it turns out, since Blomkamp and Tatchell turn him into a standard-issue, screaming-military-maniac in the third act.**
I've long been a Blomkamp admirer, but not a fan. District 9 opened up many doors for the gifted director, who has proven that one can create believable worlds on a relative shoestring budget, while bringing social commentary back to mainstream sci-fi. But I take issue with his annoying characters, heavy-handed messages, and uninspired plotting. Having the keys to the kingdom means nothing if your intention is to turn that kingdom into a Wal-Mart.
As Blomkamp's filmography progresses, the stars get bigger, the scripts get thinner, and I suspect the bloom will soon be off the rose. Moviegoers love underdog stories almost as much as they love shiny new things, but they'll only put up with so much nonsense from a promising auteur. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan, who learned the hard way that, when it comes to souring fan opinion on gimmick filmmaking, all it takes is a Village.
*Or am I?
**Notable only because he wears a bulky neural-uplink helmet that comic-book fans will recognize as being very similar to that of Weapon X--the graphic novel starring Jackman's claim-to-fame, Wolverine.