Neil Blomkamp has established that he is most at home when directing science fiction films, mainly because they’re the only type of film he seems to make. This isn’t to criticise; with District 9 Blomkamp certainly proved that he knew how to make an enthralling alien-invasion film, sadly his follow-up film, Elysium, wasn’t quite of the same quality. So where does that leave his third and latest film, Chappie? Well, this falls somewhere in the middle.
With Chappie, Blomkamp returns to a near-future version of Johannesburg where crime is rampant. In response to this, the police have authorised the use of automated, robotic ‘scouts’ to assist their human officers. A group of dysfunctional gangsters return in kind by kidnapping the robots’ creator, Deon (Dev Patel) and order him to reprogram a broken down ‘scout’ – only for Deon in turn to program it with Artificial Intelligence, thus creating the titular Chappie.
Naturally, Blomkamp’s film can’t escape comparison with the other AI centred film of this year, Ex Machina, but where Eva already had a developed mind, Chappie’s audience bears witness as the AI learns and matures. They follow Chappie from naïve childhood, through angst-ridden teenage years and into the early twenties as a shuriken-toting, albeit reluctant, gangster. It is effectively a shortened version of Boyhood, but with a robot.
The film doesn’t shy away from addressing questions of nature versus nurture, which it at least attempts to do rather than just sticking to the same old question of what it is to be human, as has become typical of such films. It’s a shame then that Chappie’s attempt at meaningfulness doesn’t ultimately work out.
The greatest downfall, however, is the film’s characterisation. Chappie’s adoptive parents, portrayed for some reason by Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-landi Visser (who effectively play criminalised version of themselves, complete with band merchandise), don’t quite have the acting skills to pull off the emotional requirements demanded by the third act. Their involvement is all the more confusing due to the under-utilisation of Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman. Jackman’s character in particular is little more than a token villain whose actions are as unexpected and unexplainable as the by-the-book finale.