Neill Blomkamp’s career is currently in free fall. His first film, District 9, was nominated for four Academy Awards and received nearly universal acclaim. Elysium, his big-budget follow-up, was met with a resounding shrug of the shoulders by everyone who saw it. By the time Chappie was released earlier this year, Blomkamp had burned off all the goodwill garnered by District 9 and the world was ready to really give him hell. Critics tore Chappie a new exhaust port with almost gleeful abandon, using the film as evidence that Blomkamp lacked fresh ideas and was, to sum up the critical gestalt, a one-trick pony.
Many of these criticisms would have been more appropriate if aimed at Elysium. Blomkamp’s second film was truly a re-hashing of his first, to which he only made minor changes: Matt Damon replaced his pet actor Sharlto Copley as the star, the American health care debate stood in for post-Apartheid racial relations as the central allegory, and the effects for the exoskeletal suit that his protagonist donned were upgraded. Otherwise, Elysium follows the same trajectory as District 9, in which the protagonist is drawn into the central conflict/metaphor via a workplace accident and ultimately helps solve the seemingly insurmountable problem by fighting Mad Max-lite gangsters using the help of powered armor. The only significant difference between the two films is tonal: whereas District 9 failed to set a proper tone to convey the gravity of its central allegory, Elysium swung the pendulum to the opposite side, placing the weight of the world on Damon’s shoulders in a manner that can only be described as melodramatic.
Instead of tackling another huge societal issue, Blomkamp’s third film is a parable about childrearing. Dev Patel instals a sentient program in the mind of a police robot only to have the robot taken by a duo of gansters played by memebrs of the rap group Die Antwoord. As such, the character of Chappie learns how to act from three distinct sources: the benevolent, if stuffy and high-minded, Patel; the patient, mothering Yolandi Visser; and the impatient, ghetto cool Ninja, whose only interest in Chappie is how much the robot can help him pull off a big heist. Chappie's personality ends up being a strange mixture of South African gangster bravado, pacifistic proto-AI, and innocent child. While many critics and audience members found Chappie to be annoying, his grating mannerisms are the result of this unique mix of inputs. He is annoying in the same ways that a child is annoying; inconsistent, enthusiastic, and unaware of his place in the world.
Chappie is Blomkamp’s most personal film yet, which is, simultaneously, its greatest strength and largest weakness. Take, for example, the film’s stars, South African rap group/artist collective Die Antwoord. Placing two non-professional actors in the center of the story results in numerous moments of bad acting (although the professional cast is not exempt from this criticism) while also lending their characters a truly unique attitude and charisma. When they’re not talking on the phone, Ninja and Yolandi Visser are decent enough actors to allow for their strangeness as people to sink in; they feel like they belong in Blomkamp’s post-apocalyptic Johannesburg in a way that the rest of the professional cast never quite does.
Sigourney Weaver gives the film’s worst performance, playing her calculating CEO with all the subtlety of a Kabuki performance. Dev Patel, in the role of Chappie’s creator, displays, at turns, unconvincing flights of nerd rage and genuine tenderness for his newly-birthed offspring. Hugh Jackman lowers himself to the level of his clichéd antagonist and seems to be having fun with his pulpy role as a rival developer to Patel; the funniest running joke in the film is Jackman being almost religiously offended by the concept of a sentient robot, leading him to cross himself on one occasion at the mere sight of Chappie.
Many of the bits of Chappie that critics called out as rehashed or copied from other films are more accurately seen as homages and gentle parodies. The best case of this is the Moose, Jackman’s pet project that has been overshadowed due to the success of Patel’s police robots. The giant mech, controlled via a helmet that reads the operator's thoughts, is the spitting image of RoboCop’s ED-209. It could be reasonably argued that Jackman’s character is wholly unnecessary to the plot, and his inclusion could be pointed to as an example of the structural problems that plague the film from its very beginning, but by the time Jackman dons the helmet and flies the Moose over Johanessburg in search of Chappie, it becomes clear that Blomkamp is making a movie as much for himself as for his audience. He wants to see a fight between Die Antwoord and ED-209 and by god, he makes it happen on the big screen.
Chappie succeeds to the degree that it does due to Blomkamp keeping the story’s scale small. Instead of addressing a massive social issue, the conflicts in Chappie are personal for everyone involved, and the film doesn’t overreach with its ending. In fact, the third act is stronger than the second, which is stronger than the first, meaning that Chappie is a movie which requires the audience’s full faith throughout, which, in our modern era, is asking quite a lot. Whether Chappie is a good movie or not is debatable (I would lean towards "no"), but it certainly achieves everything it sets out to.
The lambasting from critics, though, has less to do with the content and more to do with the movie’s place in Blomkamp’s career. Critics love nothing more than being right, and after the disappointment of Elysium, Chappie was an easy target. Coming down hard on Chappie was the equivalent of publishing a piece about how reality television is destroying the medium; it was the proverbial low-hanging fruit. But much of this criticism was ultimately unfair. Critics would have done better to give Elysium worse reviews and highlight the good things about Chappie. As it happened, it appears that the one-two punch of Elysium and Chappie has doomed Blomkamp to becoming a franchise-monkey for the studios; his next film is slated to be another Alien sequel conjured up by Fox to appease the rabid internet fanboys. Perhaps this is where Blomkamp truly belongs, and District 9 was a one-in-a-lifetime success, but personally, after watching Chappie, I believe that Blomkamp has the capacity for a brand of creativity that will be unfortunately quashed beneath the wheels of the studio system.