iRobot: Blomkamp’s Latest Sentimentally Inclined Sci-Fi is Pleasantly Familiar
Sentient technological constructs and expanding the definition of what constitutes the essence of consciousness as it applies to the essence of humanity is at the core of Neill Blomkamp’s latest feature, Chappie, so named for the eponymous, experimentally self-aware robot at the heart of his narrative. It is almost impossible to discuss the film without acknowledging many of its derivative elements, namely the film’s striking similarity to RoboCop (either version) and the family friendly sentiments of Short Circuit, and because of this, the film’s larger ideas feel too familiar, which undercuts Blomkamp’s ability to truly reach the poignant potential of the material.
There are a handful of emotionally rewarding sequences, but Blomkamp’s attentions are saturated by the film’s innovative protagonist to such a degree that most of the supporting players are reduced to archetypes, a similar predicament evidenced in his 2013 sophomore effort, Elysium. While the tone of his latest suggest an effort to step outside of his comfort zone, it often feels like a borrowed sci-fi parable dumped into Blomkamp’s preferred locale, again utilizing the apathetically inclined urban wasteland of Johannesburg.
It’s the not-so-distant future, and a new type of robotic technology developed by engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who works for the weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), restores law to the land. Located in Johannesburg, this is the first city to implement the groundbreaking technology, which basically uses a robotic police force streamlined with a minor human presence to regulate crime on the streets. Deon’s co-worker, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) has developed another kind of technology, a hulking tank-like prototype that is meant to be controlled remotely by the thoughts and will of a human user—however, it’s an expensive and overly aggressive invention that no one seems interested in buying, leading Moore to harbor resentment towards Deon. Meanwhile, Deon has been working on a new project that he contends will upload the equivalent of human consciousness into a robot, which would grant it all the same mental abilities innate to that of a human being. Michelle has no such interest in such technology and forbids Deon from using one of the scrap models for his new experiment. But Deon decides to borrow one of the models from the scrap heap. As he does so, he is apprehended by a band of criminals (Yo-Landi Visser, Ninja, Jose Pablo Cantillo) who want to figure out how to control the robot police bots so they can more easily complete a grand heist.
A starry, provocative cast fades into the periphery, occluded by the surprisingly endearing concoction of some first rate special effects and an emotionally attenuated voice performance from Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s regular screen presence across three features. It is perhaps unfortunate that District 9 (2009) will forever be the mark that Blomkamp’s work is inevitably measured against, as Chappie really isn’t playing in the same league. Meant to be a simpler narrative with far reaching implications about the very nature of what constitutes ‘human’ nature, Blomkamp and his crew deserve resounding applause for doing something impossible—turning a hunk of metal into an empathetic, fascinating screen character. The stunt casting of Die Antwoord’s Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja at least works in the film’s favor, as they’re basically playing versions of themselves (though reports of some on-set behavioral issues doesn’t bode well for future casting invitations).
What’s interesting is how they immediately fall into a conditioned role-play of traditional familial nuclear units, though nature vs. nurture hardly seems to be the crux of this scenario—we understand that Chappie’s adoptive parents are fooling him into breaking the law, but with that comes a certain skill set and experience as concerns surviving in a world hopelessly shadowed by human cruelty. Visser ends up being particularly compelling, a standout in a cast where many of the other major players are surprisingly flat, such as Dev Patel’s woefully underwhelming Deon.
Blomkamp doesn’t seem to want to do much with his villains. Jodie Foster and Copley’s baddies from Elysium were cartoonishly evil, but the murkier moral implications of the weapon manufacturers in Chappie allow them just a shade more grey, though we’re not given much time to get to know them (this doesn’t apply to the gnashing, shouting, utterly irritating head gangster played by Brandon Auret). Hugh Jackman’s mulleted gung-ho Christian military man (having designed a robot known as The Moose which looks distractingly similar to the failed prototypes from Robocop) seems to be on hand only to prove the dangers of how the interaction of user bias renders robotic technologically as a mere extension of evil, may not seem to get much to do, but then we often forget this is Hugh Jackman (a feat in itself).
Playing another imperious commander, Sigourney Weaver’s presence signifies a whole lot of things, even if she doesn’t get much room to play around. Her Michelle Bradley believes she’s doing the right thing—but we never get a moment to let that really sink in. Weaver’s presence (which, as everyone knows, has resulted in plans to make a new Alien film with Blomkamp at the helm) also calls to mind the failed 1983 arms dealer comedy from William Friedkin, Deal of the Century.
Perhaps a stepping stone to other, greater things for Blomkamp, for a studio film, Chappie manages to be surprisingly blunt and adult. Though this is the third consecutive exercise examining the underbelly of Johannesburg, Blomkamp and DoP Trent Opaloch still manage to convey striking, memorable visuals within its bleak confines. Aerial shots glancing down into the hollowed pit of an edifice reconstituted by criminals and the rubble defined landscape easily allow for Blomkamp’s futuristic urban hell aesthetic.
Hans Zimmer’s all electronic score is also something quite beautiful, enhancing the endearing quality of a film peppered with a series of grueling sequences, such as Chappie’s being abused by a group of callous youth before he’s physically butchered by Jackman’s cruel antagonist. Its magic may not work on those unable to look past the familiarity, but if judged on its own merit, Chappie is certainly innovative, even if it’s never as compelling as one wishes it could be.