Review: ‘District 9’ director fumbles frustrating sci-fi grab bag ‘Chappie’

One of the things that made that first screening of “District 9” such a tremendous surprise at Comic-Con was the way the film had flown almost completely under the radar. I remember seeing the short film he made, and I remember hearing his name mentioned in association with “Halo,” but I was still blindsided by just how good “District 9” was.

When I reviewed “Elysium,” I gave that film every benefit of the doubt. I went back to re-read the review tonight, and I stand by the enthusiasm of it, but not the final rating. When I re-watched the film, I felt it falling apart in front of me, and it was upsetting because I want to believe in this guy. I wrote that review from the perspective of someone who desperately wants Neill Blomkamp to make original science-fiction films that do not rely on existing properties.

I have a new desire, though. I want Neill Blomkamp to find a writer, and I want him to take a step back from the writing end of things. Here's the thing: he's made the same film three times now. The details are slightly different, but there are so many similarities between them that I'm starting to get nervous that Blomkamp really is just this one trick pony. The trick is pretty amazing, but it's starting to feel like we've seen it.

Each of his films presents a blatant, thumpingly obvious central metaphor. Each of his films deals with the marginalized fringes of society, and does so by pointing a finger directly at the ruling class. And each of his films essentially build to the same climax. This would be more of a problem if Blomkamp was less talented, but the truth is he's a technical genius. Beyond that, I think his films have real soul to them. In each of them so far, the small quiet moments are what make him feel like he's reaching for something bigger than “just” science-fiction action.

In fact, it's precisely because Blomkamp is so enormously skilled on a technical level that I find this movie infuriating. “Chappie” could not have been made a decade ago. Even now, it pushes the bleeding edge of what is possible in performance capture. Whatever you think of the movie overall, Chappie is a triumphant digital performance thanks to both Sharlto Copley and Image Engine, the primary visual effects company on this show. Chappie is, simply put, a walking, talking reality. It is a seamless piece of work, and a beautiful example of what you can get when you have a performance capture team that really knows what they're doing, and that understands exactly how realistic something has to be if it's going to elicit a real human reaction from the audience. The way Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch shoot the film also helps sell the illusion that Chappie is real, and one has to assume that Opaloch and Blomkamp have developed a very intuitive back and forth over the course of all three movies they've made together so far.

If it feels like I'm talking around my reaction to “Chappie,” that's because I am. There are some films that are frustrating to write about because of the things that are good about them. If anything, it's that almost-realized potential that drives me insane. It's so much easier to just dismiss a film if there's nothing about it that works. When you have a film like this, where there is something genuinely amazing happening, it becomes far more irritating to see so many other things about the film not work at all. “Chappie” feels like Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell had three or four different films they wanted to make, and instead of figuring out which one actually worked, they just made them all at the same time. Is “Chappie” a story about a weapons company torn between building weapons that humans use and building weapons that replace humans altogether? Is “Chappie” a story about that moment in human evolution where we meet the thing that will replace us? Is “Chappie” a hard-boiled crime drama about the way a humanoid weapon turns three criminals into better people? Is it a relationship picture about a fully sentient robot asking his maker why he's been made to die? Or is it a gigantic collision of stories and styles that lurches from scene to scene with little or no regard for either logic or grace in storytelling?

Sadly, it's the last one, and more than anything, it is a lack of focus that seems to hurt Blomkamp here. When you're trying to tell four or five different stories, none of them get told well. For example, a major part of the film deals with the rivalry between Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) and Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman). Both of them work for the same tech company, which, by the way, appears to have the worst security in Western civilization based on the way people are constantly waltzing in and out of the building with robots and vehicles and important technology. Deon is the guy behind the Scout robots, which are the fully autonomous robots that all look like Chappie, while Vincent backs a bigger remote-controlled assault device called The Moose. In some ways, “Chappie” plays like “Robocop” turned inside out. Chappie is built to be a killing machine that represents the emotionless enforcement of the law, but gradually starts to manifest a human soul, and The Moose makes a nice stand-in for the ED-209. One of the decisions I find baffling here is the way Blomkamp throws in two or three gore shots that are so wildly extreme that you can't argue with the R rating. But the rest of the film plays in a way that could easily have been a PG-13 or even a PG. I know that Blomkamp has a fondness for the hyperviolence, and there's one gag here that made me cackle, but when it's held to just these few moments, it feels wildly out-of-place.

The casting of Die Antwoord in the film is a gamble that did not pay off. Yolandi Visser and Ninja play Yolandi Visser and Ninja, which I presume made it a little easier for them to not be confused on-set. They are not terribly comfortable in front of the camera, and considering how much of the emotional weight of the film depends on them, it feels like a pretty major miscalculation. They're visually striking, certainly, but they aren't able to really settle into playing their roles. There's also an unfortunate set of choices towards the end of the film where Blomkamp stops dealing in science-fiction and jumps directly to magic. One of the things about a film like this is that you can't keep asking the audience to buy in to more and more suspensions of disbelief. You get one big buy-in per movie, and then you need to explore that. This makes a big jump from being about artificial intelligence to being a film about where consciousness resides and whether or not it can be transferred from an organic home to a non-organic home. That's a totally different big giant idea, and one that deserves a film of its own.

There are plenty of individual scenes and images and gags in “Chappie” that work, and I'll say it again: the character Chappie is remarkable in terms of subtle performance work. I cannot believe what we are seeing filmmakers create routinely these days, and I hope I never get over appreciating these miracles that arise from the collision of the human and the technological. But once the thrill of the accomplishment fades, it's apparent that Blomkamp the director has been failed by Blomkamp the writer. I can't believe how quickly I've become frustrated by this filmmaker considering how much I enjoyed his first movie, but right now, I can't think of anyone whose work ties me in knots the way Blomkamp's does.

“Chappie” is in theaters tomorrow.