I’m going to start this review with a sentence very similar to a lot of other people’s reviews of Chappie that I’ve read: I absolutely loved District 9 and was incredibly excited to see what Blomkamp was able to do with a similar, alternate-reality South African setting, a higher budget, and assumably more experience. I still haven’t seen Elysium, partially due to laziness, partially because I can’t stand Matt Damon, but largely because of the bad things I’ve heard about it. Even Blomkamp himself recently said he “fucked it up”, so I’m still not dying to see it. Back to Chappie however; based on his 2004 short Tetra Vaal, merging Blomkamp’s brilliant way of creating an overblown, yet entirely believable alternate world with ideas reminiscent of Robocop, Artificial Intelligence, et al, pitting foul-mouthed underworld gangsters against high-tech scientists, and throwing in a couple of sick He-Man: Masters of the Universe references, this is by no means a “safe” blockbuster. In fact, this film is absolutely barmy, whether that’s a good thing or not.
This film is all over the place. That isn’t even necessarily a bad thing; it’s consistently entertaining, and it’s very hard to predict what is going to happen next when you aren’t always entirely sure what just happened. That’s not to say the film is hard to understand, but it relentlessly fires what feel like key scenes at you like a cinematic gatling gun, each offering up new moral questions, plot threads, motifs, or setpieces. For every idea to be fully developed and resolved the film could easily run four hours or more. What we’re left with is not necessarily a film that makes us think about any of the interesting & well-meaning, but ultimately half-baked issues for a particularly long time, but a ridiculously fun rollercoaster that would not be out of place in a 1980’s video store.
Another layer to the unique experience that Chappie offers is just how incredibly odd certain aspects of it are, mostly in the casting and direction of the characters. The oddest thing of all is Die Antwoord. Everything about them really. In fact, I was tempted to subtitle this review “Why Antwoord?” or “Die AntWhy?” but they’re both terrible ideas. Yolandi and the embarassingly named Ninja play characters of the same names, who drive around in their incredibly ‘gangsta’ style whilst listening to music by Die Antwoord (or some approximation of music anyway) and wearing Die Antwoord merchandise. This confused me perhaps much more than it should have done, as I tried to work out whether Die Antwoord exist in this movie’s universe and they are playing their own fans, whether they were depicting fictional equivalents of themselves, or what the hell was going on with this cross-promotional nightmare. Ninja is incredibly unlikable, a trait that it seems is not so much the result of good acting, but reality shining through the fiction. Apparently he was a total nob on set, with Neill Blomkamp writing him out of pickups just so he didn’t have to bear with him on set, and an unnamed cast member referring to him as “that pile of shit”. Yolandi, however, is impossible to define. Frankly I find her irritating to look at with her otherworldly make-up & garish clothing, her voice is grating and her acting resembles the panicked enthusiasm of a high school drama fanatic. But somehow she’s so damned likable that I feel immensely guilty for finding her annoying, a really warmed to her character as the film progressed. Dev Patel is once again playing a cardboard cutout of himself, with an emotional range that extends from slightly happy to slightly upset while Hugh Jackman & Sigourney weaver are fantastic, with Weaver playing an unquestionable authority figure and Jackman being so angry even Wolverine would be passing him a Mars Bar to try and calm him down. Most of these characters are so extreme, and feel deliberately two-dimensional without becoming hollow and boring. It’s all like a live-action cartoon. Not an adaptation of a cartoon, literally a live-action cartoon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for me, but may make outsiders of other viewers.
Saving the best for last, Chappie himself is truly the star of this film. His character seems to be developed far greater than any human on screen (perhaps in a deliberate move, nudging us towards the central questions the movie presents). Little touches in his movements, intonations in his voice, and subtle expressions created only by a small LED panel & some moving bars on his “face” all contribute to conveying this. You really feel for his character, no matter how much Ninja & co aim to twist his morals, no matter how foul his language becomes in some hilarious scenes, he consistently retains a childlike innocence & an unquestioning loyalty that is impossible to dislike. I’m a special effects snob; bad CGI takes me right out of a film; but I realised through the third act that I had genuinely forgotten Chappie was not really there. His interaction with the real world and actors is pulled off stunningly but filmed in such a matter-of-fact manner. It’s all very reminiscent of the incredible FX work on District 9, and showcases what is clearly a strength in Blomkamp’s filmmaking.
It’s not going to be a film for everyone, I feel many of the points I made could be seen as good or bad depending on your view, and throwing in countless logical anomalies (“How is this arms dealer so easy to steal from?” etc) it’s easy to see how someone could write a scathing review but I found it entertaining from beginning to end & the two hours flew by and that’s enough for me. It’s so odd I see it becoming something of a cult hit over time, not least because it straddles being far too good to be an all-out B-Movie, but is far too ridiculous to be a mainstream, serious film. Unashamedly unique, there’s a hundred things I’d have done differently if I’d made it, but this is Neill Blomkamp’s film – he’s certainly made it his own. And that’s an increasingly rare trait in big-budget films these days.