Critics, fanboys, and audiences alike have been very fickle about Neill Blomkamp – adoring his out-of-nowhere debut District 9, predictably dismissing his Hollywood follow-up (Elysium), and now writing off Chappie, a return to the gritty Johannesburg of District 9, as derivative.
In truth, Chappie is not a bad film at all, and the problems that many are having with it are, I think, mostly a result of the film's South African-ness.
The story takes place in a slightly futuristic Jo'burg, in which the police have finally gotten a handle on the city's infamously high crime thanks to a squadron of bulletproof robot officers. Behind the scenes, Deon (Dev Patel), the robots' designer, has just cracked artificial intelligence and can't wait to try it out on one of his inventions. A bullying Christian coworker (Hugh Jackman, sporting a mullet and his native Australian accent) who sees A.I. as the devil's work and is bitter that his human-controlled battlebot has been shelved, plots against him.
Soon, Deon, his A.I. chip, and a junked police robot are kidnapped by local crooks. Put them all together and you've got Chappie (voiced by Blomkamp stalwart Sharlto Copley, but not motion-captured; I've been informed by my friend Scott Kravitz, the animation supervisor on the film, that Chappie was entirely key-framed), the naive, wannabe gangsta android of the title.
The worst thing I can say about Chappie is that its plot is packed with improbabilities and stock villains. The script could have used a rewrite. But others' complaints – that Chappie's accent is on a Jar Jar Binks level of annoying, that Blomkamp's been down this road before – seem to stem from an overall rejection of the film's very specific setting. This is a South African film through and through. The decaying Ponte City skyscraper, a symbol for Johannesburg's failed potential, is a featured location, but its relevance may be lost on those unfamiliar with the city. Even the film's main hoodlums are played by Ninja and Yolandi from the South African rap-electronic duo Die Antwoord. (In a perverse move, their characters share their names and even wear clothes advertising their group.)
The various story contrivances – don't get me started on that rushed, silly ending – prevent me from giving Chappie a strong recommendation. But Blomkamp still knows how to deliver arresting images (the alien-like Yolandi is particularly striking), stage action sequences, and even tug at the heartstrings. When a group of thugs beats up Chappie early on, I genuinely felt sorry for this animated robot. A movie that can do that shouldn't be completely dismissed.
The film, indeed, has plenty on its mind, not least of which is the meaning of "soul". It's not entirely successful, but it's thoughtful, and certainly made with love. Once the current Blomkamp backlash dies down, I think people will start appreciating Chappie for what it is.