It's hard to tell what Neill Blomkamp's intention was with Chappie. Both District 9 and Elysium are heavy handed allegories for social issues, more specifically the role that inequality places in our society, but Chappie is devoid of any deeper meaning that I could find, it's lack of strong themes making it stand apart from Blomkamp's previous two films. The problem with this is that it would seem that without a social message from which to hang his film around, Blomkamp has no idea how to tell a story. This is not a good trait for a director to have.
Set in a slightly futuristic version of Johannesburg, South Africa, Chappie tells the story of Chappie, an artificial intelligence in the chassis of a half destroyed police robot. We follow Chappie as he grows and learns under the guidance of Ninja and Yolandi, two gangsters who kidnapped him and are trying to use him as muscle in an armed robbery they have planned. Chappie, however, is torn between fulfilling a promise to never commit crimes he made to his creator, Deon, and the lifestyle that Ninja and Yolandi are pushing him into.
The main plot here is that as a newly "birthed" artificial intelligence, Chappie is dependant on others for guidance and support as he learns of the world he lives in. Deon, Yolandi and Ninja (who Chappie refers to as Creator, Mummy and Daddy respectively) all disagree on the way he should be raised, Deon believing he needs to be taught the difference between right and wrong, Yolandi believing he should be free to do what he wants and Ninja believing he needs to be taught how to be a man, by which he means gangster.
Chappie himself is a character straight out of a cheesy 80's sci-fi flick, a call back to a time when audiences were less knowledgeable about technology and as such films could get away with bending "the rules" more, which simply isn't the case now. Despite that, Sharlto Copley manages to make Chappie incredibly likeable and more importantly believable by playing the character with a huge amount of enthusiasm, his naivety becoming endearing rather than frustrating even as the film treats the way AI would work inconsistently from scene to scene. It is Chappie himself that provides the film with it's only genuinely good moments and ends up being the only part of the film with any kind of personality.
At no point does Chappie come together to create a cohesive whole, the story developing in bursts and often in the least logical way possible. The villain is ridiculously over-the-top in his acts of evil, but when you think about why he is doing what he is doing, it becomes clear that he is probably right. Despite that, Chappie attempts to paint his way of thinking as bigoted by having him refer to Chappie as godless and unnatural, crossing himself whenever he sees Chappie, trying to add some kind of commentary on religion that leads nowhere. Meanwhile, the characters we are meant to be rooting for keep committing crimes and acting like arseholes, never really attempting to redeem themselves and making them more dislikeable than the intended villain. It could be argued that Chappie was attempting to create a morally complex story, but it fails miserably, if that was even the intent behind this awful mess of a narrative.
Ignoring the special effects (which are fantastic, but let's face it, we kind of expect that now) and Chappie himself, there isn't a single element of Chappie that works. It may be one of the most poorly directed films you'll see this year - Blomkamp
has no control over the tone at any point, unable to decide if a
certain scene or even the film as a whole is meant to be a family
friendly story about a developing AI or a violent, down to earth story
about growing up in a gang environment, a problem that is magnified by a
script that feels more like a first draft than a finalised piece of
writing. I try to hold science fiction (which Chappie claims to be) to a higher standard when it comes to plot holes and consistent logic, but Chappie laughs in the face of it's own rules frequently, never mind anyone who has even a basic knowledge of computers and technology.
It's clear now that Neill Blomkamp is not the new sci-fi visionary that everyone had him pegged down as, and I'm fairly certain that District 9 was a fluke - and this is from someone who would defend Elysium. He obviously had some kind of idea about what he wanted Chappie to be, but his inability to transfer that to the screen (or worse, his inability to realise that Chappie doesn't work as a film) shows us that he simply isn't as capable as people thought, despite his proficiency when it comes to the technical side of film making. I'd be very interested in seeing him take on someone else's script and applying his trademark down-to-earth, gritty sci-fi style to it, but at least for now he should be encouraged to leave the writing to the writers.
And yet in spite of all of it's flaws, Chappie is mesmerising in its failure. It's fascinating to try and figure out the thought process behind a film that consistently chooses the least logical way to progress, the constant failures stacking on top of one another and building momentum until the film just gives in and delivers one of the most out of nowhere endings of all time, an ending so aggressively stupid and unexpected that you can't really believe what you are watching. In no way is Chappie a good film, or even a competent film - but it is hugely entertaining, entering the realm of "so bad it's good" frequently, and for that I'm glad it exists. If you want to go see a good AI film, please, go see Ex Machina (and you can read my review of that here), but if you want to switch your brain off and still be amazed by how stupid a film can be, then Chappie is the film for you.