Neill Blomkamp is incredibly talented, there’s no denying that. But at the rate he’s going, he could be yet another Orson Welles who started at the top and worked his way down.*
In 2006 Blomkamp made three shorts, Adicolor Yellow, co-written with his wife, Terri Tatchell, Alive in Joburg, and Tempbot. All of these dealt with androids and robots living alongside humans. Apparently Alive in Joburg impressed the hell out of Peter Jackson and he invited Blomkamp to direct the feature adaptation of the video game Halo. When that project stalled and collapsed, Jackson told Blomkamp to turn the short into a feature. The result was District 9, co-written with Tatchell.
Tatchell is a graduate of the Vancouver Film School’s Writing for Television and Film program. It’s probably safe to say her influence on District 9 is what makes it Blomkamp’s strongest movie in terms of screenwriting. Tatchell was not involved with the screenwriting on Elysium, which was Blomkamp’s baby. Tatchell came back onboard for Chappie, but methinks Neill’s ego pushed her influence back, and the result is obvious.
Elysium’s adequate, but by no means impressive, screenplay rode shotgun to the the bucking bronco Disctrict 9-esque visual narrative. Blomkamp returns to the same grungy, grimy universe with Chappie. Essentially all three features could take place in the same time period and rough terra firma location.
District 9 was, and still is, unlike any other science fiction movie before or after. It harnesses a stunning visceral intensity and narrative immediacy, partly due to the faux documentary style, and Sharlto Copley delivers a remarkably endearing performance considering the brutal shift of character he’s forced to go through.
Elysium harnessed the Hollywood juggernauts that were Matt Damon Jodie Foster, and, rather wittily, contrasted Copley as a nasty-as-hell villain. The visceral intensity was toned down a fraction, and while the high concept was raised, so the implausibility factor was ramped up. Flaws aside, it’s a great action flick, but it doesn’t possess any of the cult appeal of its predecessor.
Cue: Chappie. A police android known technically as Scout 22, but later given the nickname "Chappie", is badly damaged in a police raid and it’s shell assigned for dumping. But after Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a genius software developer, is knocked back by his boss, Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Signourney Weaver), he steals the robot with the intention of testing his new breakthrough AI design.
Unfortunately Deon and Scout 22 are kidnapped by punk gangsters (Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolindi), and as a result Scout 22, with new software inserted, becomes Chappie, the world’s first artificial intelligent android, capable of independent thought and human emotions, but also the thug thieves’ new accomplice. Before you can say “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Chappie and co. are on the rampage. Subsequently this gives Deon’s nemesis, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), the opportunity to road test his own creation, the MOOSE (read: ED-209), a massive aggressive police droid that is controlled remotely by a human. Chaos ensues.
The basic concept of Chappie: an artificially intelligent android thrust into the dangerous realm of the human world, forced to learn quickly and respond, thus forming its own survival instincts, is a great concept. But Chappie falls prey the worst kind of clichés and stereotypical characterisations. A score that sounds like it should be in another movie entirely also hampers the proceedings, often beating down in a heavy dramatic fashion, when only moments before the scene was one of comedy.
Aha! Which brings me to one of the most disappointing and frustrating parts of Chappie; it’s uneven tone. Blomkamp can’t seem to make up his mind on what kind of movie he’s delivering. One minute a morality tale, the next an action flick, then a black comedy, then a broad comedy, and in one garish few seconds it’s a horror movie as one of the villains is ripped in half by MOOSE’s huge pincers, the torn torso flung against the side of a graffiti-strewn wall. In District 9 this would’ve been fine, as District 9 makes no qualms about its ultraviolence, it’s part and parcel.
The biggest gripe most critics have with Chappie is the comparisons with other movies. I don’t have such a problem with that, in fact I’m sure half the critics are quietly enjoying making and flouting the references. There’s RoboCop and Short Circuit and Hardware and District 9 and A.I. and so on. I’ll go as far as saying, if Blomkamp had opted for the Verhoeven school of filmmaking, keeping the satirical tongue in cheek and the ultraviolence to the fore then Chappie would’ve had a lot more cult appeal. Hang on, that’s District 9. He’s already been there.
Spike Jonze’s Her came to mind, as it dealt with the other side of this coin, the software perspective. An artificial intelligent program that realises the cyber-world is her oyster. Chappie is the hardware version. But whereas Her's Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) is naive, she's got a maturity about her. Chappie (voiced [and motion-captured?] by Sharlto Copley), on the other hand, is naive, and just plain juvenile. In fact, the whole bloody smacks of childishness.
I wanted to like Chappie more. I really did! Admittedly I chuckled when he made those naïve, childlike responses, I couldn’t help it. But then the human characters would say or do something really stupid. In fact, even Chappie does silly things. And those silly dog ears, and the monobrow and chin, I mean, why?! Well, I know why, but it’s cartoonish and absurd.
Initially I was very excited when I read that Neill Blomkamp had been announced as the director to helm the next Alien movie, a sequel to be set directly after the events of Aliens, but before Alien3 and Alien Resurrection. Apparently it will tie in with Prometheus too. But now I am nervous that Blomkamp will be on board as one of the screenwriters. We’ll just have to wait and see …
* To be honest, Welles has made several great movies later in his career (Touch of Evil and Othello to name a couple), but he felt he'd never bettered his debut feature, and was quoted as such.