Chappie: Narrative Coherence Not Included

Neill Blomkamp‘s career, judging by current trajectory, appears to be one of diminishing returns.

With a handful of shorts and three features to his credit, the feted South African wunderkind seems locked in a precipitous southward spiral. Although, perhaps not yet terminal, he’s clearly a prisoner to his own aesthetic and repetitive thematic concerns.

Following an early career in 3D animation and germinative short films that would inform his feature work, Blomkamp was tapped by Peter Jackson, well into his self indulgent decline, to work on an adaptation of vaunted FPS and Alien derivative video game HALO. Nerdgasmic squeals of hype and salivatory anticipation pealed across the internet…and then — perhaps mercifully — there was nowt.

Citing a breakdown in relations with the studio, Blomkamp (and producer Jackson) turned instead to District 9 (2009) — adapting to feature length the short Alive In Joburg — a war-torn xenophobia allegory packing serious ordnance and a dirty mean streak. It was every bit the product of its country of origin.

Image credit: Sony Pictures

Nominated for multiple Academy Awards (including Best Flick), District 9’s considerable impact soon landed Blomkamp some serious star firepower in Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and begat 2013’s Elysium, another, markedly less successful, class parable wrapped up in post-human ultraviolence and debatable narrative coherence.

Current release Chappie maintains that inexorable slide, expending its chaotic ‘five year old telling you the best story ever’ energy with ravenous abandon, surrendering to tonal prevarication and admirable yet unfocused directorial exuberance all too readily.

Veering all over the shop from Spielberg mawk to Verhoeven claret-bath, Chappie is, at heart, a schizoid coming of age kids’ flick, an armor plated inversion of Pinocchio flirting with hastily discarded satirical ambitions.

(The benchmarks and references are all there: I’ll let you treat yourself and spot them for yourselves).

Plot.

Oh, woe is ‘plot’.

Here goes, then:

Set just a few years in the future, Johannesburg is, if it’s even possible, more hellish and post-apocalyptic than ever.

The Tetra Vaal corporation — robotics pioneers — have done what shady corporations do and hooked up a juicy contract with the local five-oh, supplying cop-bots for urban pacification and law enforcement.

Image credit: Sony Pictures

These benignly monickered ‘Scouts’ (vaguely less dorky Battle Droids out of the prequels), keep the peace on the mean streets. But things are, of course, doomed to go wrong when artificial intelligence, rival cop-bot designers and a few (comparatively) ‘lovable’ gangsters on the make get caught up in proceedings.

In short (circuit): Scout 22, eventually nicknamed Chappie (voiced by D9 and Elysium’s Sharlto Copley), is gifted a rogue AI experiment by his ‘maker’ (and Tetra Vaal boffin) Deon (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel), granting him sentience and throwing into motion a cascade of plot contrivances and action beats bootlegged from half a dozen better sci-fi actioners.

Which is not to say there aren’t pleasures to be had from Blomkamp’s infuriating concoction. Chappie eventually overwhelms the viewer into submission with its drunkenly off kilter tonal shifts and narrative manoeuvre (one of which hinges on a fucking motivational kitten poster).

Chief among said pleasures is Deon’s rival engineer Vincent.

Played by the worryingly vascular Hugh Jackman (anyone?), Vince bombs about like Alf Stewart done up as Steve Irwin, all righteous mullet, and vocab cribbed directly from Kevin Bloody Wilson.

He’s ‘Australian’, you see.

Vince, it turns out, has designed an alternative robo-rozzer solution, the bipedal tank known as Moose, and he’s pretty ticked off Tetra Vaal CEO Bradley (a heavily under-utilised Sigourney Weaver) won’t give it the time of day.

The Moose’s USP, as Vince sees it, is that it is controlled by unimpeachably sane and moral human thought via Firefox (the flick, not the browser) style helmet interface, whereas the Scouts are autonomous policing solutions (albeit controlled en masse via deus ex machina flash drive, of course).

Image credit: Sony Pictures

Also (initially) on the antagonist tip are native South African dirtbag cartoons Die Antwoord (Ninja, wired up meth bloke, and Yolandi, human kewpie doll), who essay themselves; they live in their de rigeur industrial warehouse gangster pad with offsider Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), sporter of the most powerful handlebar mo’ cum aphrodisiac since Tom of Finland downed pen.

Spurring these scruffy ragamuffins into action is Jo’Berg’s own Khal Drogo, the hulking Hippo, (Brandon Auret), who’s got one over Ninja et al (inconceivable?) and has backed the knockabout trio into a mega-heist on a nasty deadline, but otherwise lolls about with his shower-neglecting pals smoking toilet roll doobies and polishing his golden machine gun.

Such villainous decadence.

Anyway, haphazard story short: an AI enabled Chappie is acquired by the ‘Woord, drafted into their heist plan, and all manner of rag tag ‘adopted’ family dynamics, fraught ruminations on the Singularity and obligatory third act grue-storms erupt.

Blomkamp, an eighties kid, nods aggressively at the breathless, colour coded anime and sci-fi of the era. But unfortunately scenes of intended pathos — such as Chappie’s actual baptism of fire — feel unearned and rushed, victims to the kitchen sink plotting and insistent ‘oh another thing’ approach to storytelling.

Chappie himself is endearing enough, perhaps leaning a tad too much on the emotive Macross antennae juxtaposed sneering teen gangsta schtick. Though, thankfully never completely teetering off the edge of credulity into obnoxiousness.

Image credit: Sony Pictures

Of course, the film’s effects are unimpeachable; unfortunately we live in a post-wonder era wherein fully tangible, photo realistic creations of this nature rarely rate a mention, even when far surpassing Michael Bay‘s murderous shape changers and their ilk.

In the end, Chappie is like the weird, irreconcilably conceived progeny of its overt influences; there’s sweetness and innocence in there, the nostalgic lunge towards the fairytale grating hard against the decapitations and smeared viscera (so sex, thanks, etc), while seemingly attempting some garbled version of a moral coda amongst the nihilism.

This is very much juvenilia with a murky paint job. Blomkamp’s transparent examinations of AI and consciousness are delivered in sub-Lawnmower Man bumph, a bank of PS4s strapped together and a wired up bike helmet suitable conduits for the transference of of our ‘souls’. All the while, the film’s version of a ‘happy’ ending is best described as a harrowing post-death condemnation to an eternal, loveless nightmare.

Sadly, the auteur Blomkamp is looking ever more the one trick pony. A slave to an aesthetic and wedded to themes that are becoming ever more threadbare, leaning on confused politics, scattershot plotting and superficial notions of sci-fi.

Blomkamp’s Alien, then?

Not really feeling it.

Dredd 2, perhaps?

For the record, I wrote this listening to Basil PoledourisRoboCop OST. And not once did I overtly cite this most obvious of references in the preceding. Or did I? Take that internet commentariat.

Originally published at www.hopscotchfriday.com.