(Neill Blomkamp, 2015)
Blomkamp has nothing to say about anything. Three movies in, and he has included themes and references in his movies that are consistently interesting and topical - the gap between rich and poor, racism, violence in law and order, crime, what constitutes consciousness, corporate influence - and yet he has never really investigated any of them in any meaningful way. They're there. And that's it.
What he seems really interested in is technology. That and ultra-violence. Preferably a combination of the two.
Chappie follows the Blomkamp formula in that it includes many elements reminiscent of his first 2 films, only it is less successful than either. Set in a very near future Johannesburg (lacking a single major black character, let it be noted) where the police are using robot "Scout" officers to deal with the overwhelming rate of violent crime, Chappie is really the story of Dev Patel, the engineer creator of the Scouts, who decides to repurpose a damaged unit in order to test out his new AI program. Only this test coincides with his own kidnapping at the hands of lowlife small-timers Ninja and Yolanda (the members of Die Antwoord) who want him to hit the off switch on all the scouts so that they can pull off a massive heist, and pay back their crimelord boss Rhino. When the criminals spot Chappie, awoken into the world like a baby, all blank slate innocence-cum-stupidity and clumsiness, Ninja immediately spots a way to exploit his abilities for financial gain, while Yolanda takes to motherhood like a natural, bonding with her baby instantly.
Complicating this is Hugh Jackman's dangerous rugby playing, gun-toting, ex-soldier Christian engineer, envious of Patel's success and just itching to be allowed test his massive Robocop ED 209 rip-off, "the Moose". When all these interests converge for the climax is when Blomkamp seems at his most comfortable. Mayhem, lots of firepower, blood and guts and the apocalyptic destruction of a warehouse.
Blomkamp loves lingering on the damage hardware can do to the human body, and he shoots action with a real feel for the visceral impact of combat. Combine these traits with a love of video-game tropes (lots of HDU shots and POV 1st person shooter cutaways) and a distinctive nose for a grungey cyberpunk tech fetish, and what you have here is nine tenths an almost generic Blomkamp film.
That other tenth is filled by Chappie himself, a beautifully seamless cgi creation, sensitively, and at times hilariously voiced by Sharlito Copley. Chappie has an actual arc here, losing his innocence before finding something new to replace it, and much of the film's humour comes from watching him act like a gangster, mangle swearwords and misinterpret simple instructions.
The cast are fine, the wooden Die Antwoord aside. Jackman is having a rare old time as this bad guy, all mullet and shorts, and Dev Patel is believably geeky and terrified when called to do so.
What it's really missing, though, especially in the draggy middle section, is a point, a reason to exist.