"I'm consciousness. I'm alive. I'm Chappie."
Chappie is Neill Blomkamp's third feature, and it comes in the wake of his critically-acclaimed District 9 (2009) and the less accomplished Elysium (2013). It is an important opportunity for him to bounce back, but while he doesn't quite convince that he can deliver a flat-out excellent blockbuster on a big budget yet again, Chappie proves that he can explore bold ideas under the pretense of science-fiction, yet thrill like any other high-concept Hollywood blockbuster.
With strong studio backing, Blomkamp returns to South Africa to shoot the picture, once again tapping on the ugly and violent criminal underworld. It is a well-shot movie, with polished aesthetics despite trying to emulate the documentary style of District 9 early on.
News reports occur at the start, giving us a picture of the turmoil affecting Johannesburg, and how the robot police force is dealing with crime. There's less world-building to be done for Chappie than for Elysium or District 9, and within minutes, we are pretty much sold into the concept of a fleet of police robots that can combat crime.
That is the foundation needed for bolder ideas to take shape. Some of these ideas have been explored before, for example artificial intelligence in Spielberg's underrated A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and the nature of the human consciousness in the pretentious and awful Transcendence (2014).
Blomkamp brings such themes together, including strong, direct references to religion. Dev Patel, who plays the genius nerd who designed and programmed the police robots, goes further by secretly developing a robot, ignominiously named Chappie, who can think and feel like a human. This is where he constantly reminds the sentient robot, "I'm your maker!", but also reminding us that trying to fuse too many bold ideas together in a blockbuster doesn't automatically make it a clever piece.
Chappie is tonally uneven, even clunky and dramatically inept at times. It feels like a mix of many movies that we have seen before, and a cauldron of tones - it could go from saccharine E.T.-esque drama one moment to rap gangsta badassness at the next.
The movie still entertains through spectacle and comedy, and I daresay it is a minor step up from Elysium, but Blomkamp needs to work on tone and storytelling. If his next project is really an 'Alien' movie, he needs to be spot-on tonally and narratively, or face unprecedented scrutiny.
Verdict: A quite entertaining sci-fi blockbuster with bold ideas, but Blomkamp never pulls off a tonally consistent film.
- Eternality Tan