Neill Blomkamp is a deeply wounded man, crying out for our attention. I speak, of course, of the undeniable fact that Blomkamp was profoundly traumatized, on some fundamental level, by watching Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film RoboCop. I mean: He can’t stop re-making the damn thing. Only trauma or acid trips produce this many flashbacks: RoboCop shots, scenes, plot elements and even props are taken wholesale, in every feature film he makes. Neill Blomkamp cannot, for some reason, construct any form of screenplay that does not require (a) a police robot, and (b) some dude trying to shoot it. It’s gone beyond homage, beyond even rip-off. At this point, re-making RoboCop is a compulsion for him.
Which brings us to Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s latest, about a robot who learns to love. When I tell you that Chappie takes place in a hyper-violent near-future city where the police force does its dirty work with robots (as in RoboCop), and that this police force is also run by a malevolent corporation (as in RoboCop), and that the police are considering using a super-robot which is perchance too violent even for that evil corporation (like the ED-209 from RoboCop), and that this robot furthermore looks exactly like the ED-209 from RoboCop (you might recall this robot from RoboCop from your most recent viewing of RoboCop), but that Chappie, our hero, is a police robot with a soul (you might call him a… RoboCop! Because he is like RoboCop! Hero of RoboCop!), but that his greatest and most unexpected challenge turns out to be the question of whether you can revive a dying human hero as a robot (WHICH IS ALSO FROM ROBOCOP, YOU CAN’T JUST FILM THE SCREENPLAY TO ROBOCOP AND CALL IT A DIFFERENT MOVIE). I want you to look on this with some empathy. Fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly. Oscar-nominated director Neill Blomkamp gotta keep remaking RoboCop. It’s all he knows.
It’s been a long fall for our friend Neill. If you’ll recall, it wasn’t that many years ago that he was the golden child of genre movies. His 2009 debut, District 9, earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination, was called a “scathing social satire” by the LA Times, and got rave reviews for its adept blend of ’80s action-movie homage and bleeding-heart social commentary on South African apartheid. Granted, that “scathing social satire” didn’t hold up to much scrutiny: As anti-racist critics like Nicole Stamp soon pointed out, in attempting to protest South African racism, Blomkamp portrayed black South Africans as (metaphorically) lazy, dirty, cat-food-eating cockroach aliens, and (literally) superstitious “witch doctors” and crime lords who practiced cannibalism. It’d be a stretch to say his film was as offensive as apartheid, but, you know. It certainly didn’t do any great work on the “healing racial divides” front.
Since then, it’s been one long elevator ride down to the basement. He attempted to regain his progressive cred with Elysium, a would-be treatise on classism and universal healthcare that was actually just scenes of dudes shooting robots for two hours. It was widely panned. Blomkamp’s childhood friend and District 9 lead, Sharlto Copley, started taking roles in other directors’ films, leading to the not-unexpected revelation that he was a pretty terrible actor. (Blomkamp continued to put him in everything anyway.) It got to the point where Blomkamp’s only chance at redemption was a shot at directing an Alien sequel, a task that was not only creatively degrading but more or less bound to fail just as badly as every Alien sequel since 1986.
Chappie is his last shot: One more chance at auteurism until he goes down into the ol’ franchise meat-grinder. To say that it’s not exactly a stirring defense of his talents is an understatement.
The RoboCop fixation is bad enough, but what’s even more confusing is Blomkamp’s insistence that Chappie is actually a “sci-fi comedy thing.” It’s certainly the only comedy I’ve seen where a sympathetic main character gets physically ripped in half by an evil robot. But the laughs, to the extent we are meant to find them, come from the fact that Chappie, after attaining sentience due to an improvement in his software, is adopted by a “gang” — played by South African rappers and/or professional offense-givers Die Antwoord, seen strangely wearing their own concert t‑shirts throughout most of the film (though their characters share the actors’ names, we’re given no indication that they’re in a band, which makes the existence of Die Antwoord merchandise in this fictional reality seem less like clever product placement and more like the space-time continuum is dissolving), —and learns to wear “bling” and refer to himself as “Robot Gangsta Number One.” His creator, Deon, is greatly alarmed by this development, and works to turn Chappie back to his original mission of sweetness, pacifism and not using profanity.
This plot twist, you’ll note, does not come from RoboCop. It comes, instead, from the beloved 1988 children’s classic Short Circuit 2, in which Johnny‑5 — a military robot who develops sentience after being struck by lightning — moves to New York with his creator, Ben, and falls in with a dangerous gang known as Los Locos. They are distinguished from other, less tough gangs by their terrifying chant: “Los Locos kick your ass! Los Locos kick your face! Los Locos kick your balls into OU-TER SPAAAAAAAAACE,” a chant also historically significant for being the reason my brother and I were grounded on multiple occasions in 1988. Ben is greatly alarmed by this development and works to turn Johnny‑5 back to his original mission of sweetness, pacifism and not using profanity.
Again, this isn’t so much homage as it is more or less filming the scenes from the original movie with the characters’ names changed: One of Short Circuit 2’s most famously traumatizing scenes, in which Johnny‑5 wanders out into the streets of New York City and is beaten nearly to death by a gang of street criminals, is recreated note for note in Chappie. The only major change is that Chappie’s creator Deon is played by an actual Indian actor, Dev Patel, and not by the very white Fisher Stevens dressed up in brownface to play an Indian character. You could call it progress, but … well, could you? It’s the same damn plot.
What’s frustrating here is that Blomkamp’s progressive instincts, clumsy as they may be (and hampered as they undoubtedly are by his adherence to collaging other movies’ scripts) still poke through from time to time.
For example: The fearsome robot enemy, the “Moose,” is controlled by a pilot via mind control. The people on the ground risk everything to fight the Moose; the pilot of the Moose risks nothing. There’s a statement about drone warfare here; it just gets drowned out by bullets and the sound of dudes being ripped in half. (Trust me: It has a distinctive sound.) Blomkamp is too enraptured by cinematic violence to ever cogently critique the real thing.
Similarly, in the parable of Chappie being raised by both kind scientists and menacing criminals, there are interesting questions about self-determination, identity and even gender. Before his abusive foster father Ninja beats and intimidates him into learning how to carry a gun, Chappie wants to play with dolls. (Although, while we’re on the subject: Why, aside from the fact that he’s voiced by Sharlto Copley, is everyone in this movie instantly convinced that Chappie is a boy? “He” is a metal chassis connected to a CPU: He has about as much need for a gender as the MacBook I’m using to type this review.) Similarly, both Ninja and the owners of the evil police corporation are determined that Chappie is a creature designed solely to inflict violence, and they therefore punish him for attempting to be anything else: Is this about racism? Classism? Or am I just looking, way too hard, for political meaning in the world’s most violent and expensive tribute to Short Circuit 2?
It’s been a long way down for Neill Blomkamp. And, while I’d like to believe that Chappie is rock bottom, that Alien sequel is a go. It will be the 10th movie in the series, and, one trusts, will reflect the later developments in the franchise, such as Alien’s various adventures battling Predator. Maybe there will be some kind of political statement on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, reflected through these two battling xenomorphs. Or maybe — and I’m just guessing here — we’ll finally meet the unstoppable cosmic law enforcement officer who can put an end to these damned aliens once and for all. Some kind of robot, say. A robot who’s a cop. Oh, if only this marvelous “robot cop” had a name!
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.