You can see why genre-film nuts want so badly to believe in Neill Blomkamp — in Blomkamp himself, and in the idea of Neill Blomkamp, and in the related idea that the Neill Blomkamps of the world should be put in charge of more things. Decades ago, Francis Ford Coppola imagined a girl from Ohio — he actually said “some little fat girl,” but whatever — picking up her father’s camcorder and revolutionizing cinema. Filmmakers like Blomkamp are geekdom’s version of the Girl From Ohio archetype — the garage-rock director who appears out of nowhere, works dark technomancy on a one-bedroom-apartment budget, and reminds complacent, better-heeled auteurs what it was like to be young and impatient and full of ideas for badass action scenes. Blomkamp was born in South Africa in 1979, moved to Canada at 17, broke into the business in the late ’90s as a 3-D animator and visual effects artist, learned from television and advertising work to tell a story visually and stretch a buck, and eventually began creating imaginative and technically astounding sci-fi shorts, including Alive in Joburg, a pseudo documentary about a city struggling to assimilate a population of alien refugees. These films wowed Peter Jackson, who was developing a movie based on the Halo games franchise and hired Blomkamp to direct it. After that project collapsed, Jackson helped bankroll a feature-length reworking of Alive in Joburg instead. District 9 cost only $30 million to produce, flew by like a bullet, grossed nearly $211 million worldwide, and became the first mockumentary ever nominated for Best Picture — not bad for a film that cost an eighth of what James Cameron spent on Avatar.
Thrift isn’t Blomkamp’s only virtue as a filmmaker. He likes CGI, but he also likes shooting in hard daylight on the streets of real cities. (Johannesburg plays itself in District 9, while 2013’s bigger-budgeted, Matt Damon–led follow-up, Elysium, cast Mexico City as a globalized future-junkyard Los Angeles.) He’s unafraid of gore. He has a teenage boy’s jones for absurd Duke Nukem–ish artillery and robotic exo-suits, but he stages his fight scenes in an unshowy, bruising, physically plausible way. There’s a sense of play to his pastiches (District 9 mashes together The Office and Cronenberg body-horror, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Atari’s Area 51), but also a strong sense of genre history. In Elysium, a clean, bright country-club space station orbits a teeming, grimy Earth, and the story becomes a metaphorical dialogue between the two ideas of the future we’re most frequently promised by sci-fi. But the real reason Blomkamp gets (perhaps premature) maverick-auteur props is that until very recently, he has resisted the temptation to cash in by lending his talents to a big-time franchise — it’s been reported that Star Wars: Episode VII went to J.J. Abrams at least in part because Blomkamp turned it down. The original sci-fi movie not based on a preexisting intellectual property is an endangered species, but Blomkamp has made three in a row. The third one is Chappie, with Blomkamp’s childhood friend Sharlto Copley (previously the hapless bureaucrat protagonist of District 9 and the heavy in Elysium) as the voice of the titular police droid, who suffers mightily after an experimental software upgrade grants him sentience and feelings. You can trace this project’s genesis, like District 9’s, back to one of those calling-card shorts — this time it’s the 80-second motion-capture showcase Tetra Vaal, in which a robot who’s a Chappie dead ringer right down to the distinctive mailbox-flag “ears” patrols the slums of Joburg.
As he also did in District 9, Blomkamp opens Chappie with scene-setting exposition through faux-documentary talking-head interviews, although this time the roster includes Anderson Cooper as himself. It’s the immediate future, and with the help of the Scouts, a small army of artificially intelligent peacekeeping droids built by the Tetravaal corporation, the Johannesburg police force has finally turned a corner in the war on crime. We’re introduced to the Scouts’ creator, the boyish Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), and to his colleague Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman in shorts and a monkish mullet), who has a military background and a “fundamental, spiritual” opposition to artificial intelligence. Vincent’s own brainchild is a hulking urban-assault robot called the Moose, which requires a human operator and has been rendered superfluous by Deon’s Scouts. The Moose is like a cross between the ED-209 from RoboCop and — well, OK, it’s just the ED-209 from RoboCop with a different name, and before the movie’s over, it’ll show up to stomp all over the fine line between homage and fan fiction. Which, even if the Moose lacks the hand-puppety personality of Phil Tippett’s original ED, is basically fine — if you’re going to pilfer recent sci-fi history, you might as well steal boldly and gleefully, the way Blomkamp does here, lifting from Paul Verhoeven and Masamune Shirow and E.T. and Edward Scissorhands like a hyperactive kid wilding out on Tumblr.
Blomkamp puts the rest of the pieces on the board in the action sequence that follows, a shootout between a Scout (designated no. 22) and a crew of thugs led by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the avant-annoying South African techno-rap crew Die Antwoord, who appear here as more or less gun-toting versions of themselves, and who manage to escape after blasting the Scout with an RPG. (Your enjoyment of this movie will be almost directly proportional to how much you like or can tolerate Die Antwoord. Blomkamp is a huge fan who’s been trying to make stars of these goofballs for years; Elysium will presumably stand unchallenged as the only movie ever whose lead role was offered to Ninja, Eminem, and Matt Damon, in that order.) Meanwhile, Patel’s Deon perfects a new form of advanced AI during a Red Bull–fueled late-night coding session, but when he presents it to the head of Tetravaal (Sigourney Weaver, in an underwritten stern-boss part), she reminds him she’s running a munitions firm, one that has no use for robots that can paint or write poetry or make judgments about art. Patel is playing a variation on his Newsroom character, Neal Sampat, the guy who’s so smart no one will listen to him; undaunted by his boss’s lack of interest, he salvages the body of the damaged Scout 22 before it’s scrapped, intending to reprogram it with his new software. Instead, he’s kidnapped by Ninja and Yo-Landi. They want him to remotely deactivate the Scouts; he tells them it can’t be done, but, under threat of torture, he offers them a consolation prize: He’ll reprogram no. 22 with his new software and give them a Scout of their own. Ninja immediately recognizes the potential here — they can mold a deadly police robot into “the illest gangsta on the block.”
When Chappie’s new consciousness first comes online, he cowers behind the furniture, fearful and childlike, but soon he’s expressing himself in a mix of pidgin Afrikaans and rap slang. From here, the movie becomes a parable about the way even well-intentioned parents inflict their own issues on their progeny. Deon, calling himself the Maker, assumes the role of stern tiger father, urging Chappie to paint and read and admonishing him to avoid crime and guns; the baby-voiced Yo-Landi teaches him to call her “Mommy” and reads him bedtime stories, but can’t protect him from Ninja, who’s plotting to use Chappie as muscle in an armored-car heist. Ninja teaches Chappie to do a loose-hipped robot Crip-walk, drapes him in a B.A. Baracus–worthy assortment of gold chains, and circumvents Deon’s antigun programming by introducing his new titanium pal to knives, throwing stars, and the dog-eat-dog morality of the street. They fuck you up, your mum and dad. For all its debts to RoboCop, Chappie may actually owe the most to the scene from Short Circuit 2 in which Johnny Five does the “Los Locos kick your balls into outer space” chant after being spray-painted. But underneath it all, this is a movie about a trusting and innocent child prodigy warped by emotional abuse and coming to terms with his own mortality, and the note of melancholy it occasionally strikes is something we haven’t seen from Blomkamp before. You can tell he’s not entirely comfortable with the terrain; the surrogate-family scenes flit awkwardly between comedy and drama, as if Blomkamp is worried he’ll lose us if he gives this story’s essential sadness a moment to settle. Instead, the movie races to a noisy denouement in which more than one character’s consciousness is ripped like a CD and reinstalled elsewhere via technology indistinguishable from magic — at some point, Sigourney Weaver gets to say “Authorize the launch of the Moose” with what I swear was an It’s a living sigh. Blomkamp has announced that his next movie will be an Alien sequel that sends Weaver’s Ellen Ripley off in style by mostly ignoring everything after James Cameron’s Aliens. As an unabashed fan of David Fincher’s Alien3, I’m not convinced Ripley really needs another farewell. But Blomkamp certainly owes Weaver a better film than this one.
For a movie about artificial intelligence conceived and released at a moment when that technology seems pregnant with possibility and menace like never before, Chappie barely acknowledges the existential import of what it’s depicting. As a portrait of the Singularity’s arrival, even Wally Pfister’s resoundingly bogus Transcendence was less shallow, and if it’s a sci-fi treatment of police militarization and the age of drone warfare you’re after, I have no choice but to recommend José Padilha’s RoboCop reboot instead. I’m guessing Blomkamp’s defenders will choose to read ripped-from-the-headlines social commentary into Chappie anyway. They’re already sounding out philosophical depths that aren’t there — Wired cited Plato and Descartes and called the movie’s affirmation of mind-body dualism “surprisingly radical,” an assertion to which the only sensible response is: Ninja, please.
Blomkamp has long insisted that his movies contain no messages, whether philosophical or political. In another Wired story, from July 2013, it’s said that he “identifies as neither liberal nor conservative.” That’s a lily-livered stance, but in Blomkamp’s case I’m actually inclined to believe it’s true; only someone without strong political convictions of any kind could make three movies this ideologically incoherent. The most frustrating thing about Blomkamp’s work isn’t his shorthand approach to character or his overreliance on tension-ratcheting shots of people waiting for things to finish uploading. You expect that kind of stuff from movies like this; you allow for it. The problem with Blomkamp is that whether he’s willing to stand behind them or not, his movies do toy with politically charged imagery and ideas, often in flip and contradictory and sometimes offensive ways. They use the realities of our moment as a backdrop and a jumping-off point: U.S. border policy and immigration in Elysium; poverty in District 9, which was shot in an actual squatter camp in Soweto, where people who would probably never see the movie in a theater rented out their homes so Blomkamp and his crew could use them as emblems of shantytown squalor. There’s a responsibility that comes with that; if Blomkamp wants to make apolitical movies, he should start setting them on Mars and shooting them on soundstages, instead of pointing a camera at the actual world.
If you gave Rod Serling a state-of-the-art special-effects team and a cognitively debilitating head injury, he might produce something like District 9, which makes an essentially indisputable point (racism: It’s bad) by restaging apartheid with chitinous extraterrestrials — the “Prawns” — swapped in for black people, and then undercuts that message with a subplot depicting Nigerian humans as violent, superstitious thugs whose criminal enterprises include alien-human prostitution. In his book Race in American Science Fiction, Isiah Lavender III coins the phrase “the blackground” to describe the benighted racial attitudes science fiction often ends up uncritically reinforcing, even when it attempts to invert or subvert the black-white binary by adding aliens or robots to the equation; District 9 has a pretty major blackground problem. The unraveling of the central allegory begins with the film’s inciting incident. While supervising a Prawn-relocation program that’s essentially an internment camp, bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley) accidentally sprays himself with an alien bioweapon and begins growing a grody lobster claw where his hand used to be; the movie implicitly endorses the notion of racial contamination as a horror worse than death.
District 9 ends with the South African government’s mistreatment of the Prawns exposed; Elysium ends with Latino revolutionaries hacking a system that represents “The System” to grant everyone on MexicEarth instant citizenship on Space Station America and access to its army of universal-health-care-bots. But in both films, the oppressed are liberated only when a white savior-martyr rises up to bend the arc of history in their favor. Both of these movies are thought experiments in which a white person1 becomes the victim of racially coded violence and oppression, takes refuge in the criminal underclass when facing certain death either symbolically or literally, and emerges as a champion, taking up alien artillery or robot arms on another race’s behalf. In both movies, the turning point involves vomiting — a metaphorical purge, a rejection of what’s been swallowed, a violent reaction to the sickening reality of oppression and exploitation. Elysium — in which Damon pukes after being blasted with a lethal dose of radiation, and then lets local hoodlums bolt robot arms to his body and turn him into a chop-shop Steve Austin, so he can help them steal William Fichtner’s brain — isn’t a better movie than District 9. But it pushes that savior narrative so far over the top, you almost have to surrender to it. Damon’s Max suffers a conspicuously placed side wound while losing his first fight with the assassin Kruger (Copley again, this time playing a Mad Max version of the biker from Raising Arizona) and barely escapes with his life. As he’s dragging himself through the streets of L.A., Blomkamp shoots him from behind, so that the armature of his exo-suit makes it look like he’s carrying a cross. MATT DAMON IS WHITE JESUS! It’s tragic and absurd and a little bit funny — but by focusing on individuals granted the power to change the status quo by sci-fi accident, these movies trivialize the struggle of the underclass whose side they’re ostensibly on.
In Elysium, it’s Damon as Max, the sole guero in what appears to be an otherwise all-Latino L.A.
I’m not accusing Blomkamp of being some kind of weird crypto-racist; I just think he’s a little tone-deaf and a little self-satisfied, and either doesn’t care or legitimately doesn’t realize how this stuff is going to play. Chappie actually does the noncriminal poor a favor by leaving them out entirely. In this version of future Johannesburg, there are only citizens (white-collar tech workers, police, a few rich carjacking victims) and roving bands of violent thugs; the city seems to have an upper class, a middle class, and a Road Warrior class. The gangs are racially polyglot, like the ones in the “Beat It” video, and conspicuously if not liberally salted with white faces. There’s still a cringeworthy field trip to the project lair of a drug lord called “The King,” who’s played by Eugene Khumbanyiwa, the Malawian actor who played the Nigerian warlord in District 9, and whose crew apparently camps out all day on an open-air slag heap surrounded by trash fires and pit-bull corpses, as you do. And I’m not sure making Die Antwoord’s Ninja — a gold-grilled Caucasian born with the grandiosely Caucasian name Watkin Tudor Jones — the irresponsible ghetto parent who leads Chappie astray really blunts the racial implications of that plotline as thoroughly as Blomkamp may think it does. But, hey, it’s the first Neill Blomkamp movie that fails almost purely on artistic grounds, which is an achievement. And somewhere, right now, the next Neill Blomkamp is walking out of a movie theater, probably a little disappointed, determined to make something cooler.