Gun-play and good theology don’t have a happy history together. You can usually bet that if a theological viewpoint needs the reinforcement of heavy weaponry, it’s flawed. Just ask the Tea Party. Not so with South African film-maker Neil Blomkamp’s latest.
Let’s be clear from the start: this is no masterpiece; nor is it as good as his breakout first film District 9. But it is better than the confused surface-sheen of second feature Elysium. We’re in near-future Johannesburg, where crime is controlled by intelligent police-robots exclusively provided by one weapons-company. Dev Patel is the genius behind it, and it just so happens that in the shape of a reconstituted damaged robot that’s he cracked the problem of evolving artificial intelligence (the title character, in a brilliant motion-capture performance by Blomkamp stalwart Sharlto Copley). The picture is complicated by a team of gangsters (played terribly by South African music stars Die Antwoord) stealing Chappie and some internal company rivalry from Hugh Jackman and his really big robot Moose. So the story develops … sort of. Being kind, plot isn’t this film’s strong point. There are holes in the narrative that Moose could blunder through without noticing: conveniently non-existent security at a cutting edge arms-firm? Motive-less characters? Characters with no discernible need to appear in the story at all? All these more are present and incorrect.
Where it scores, though, is in some blistering but simply shot action scenes and an eye for the big issues. All three of Blomkamp’s features this far have had bigger dimensions than simply themselves at work, and here we’re in serious territory. The film asks and asks you to consider fundamental questions: what it means to be created, what it means to be human, the nature of consciousness and the purpose of the body. It’s this latest that’s perhaps the most interesting: just when you think it’s going to default into some vaguely spiritual nonsense about the body not really mattering, it goes somewhere really clever and suggests the body is so important that after death we have to get new ones. That’s orthodox-Christian theology, in case you didn’t spot it; we don’t leave bodies behind, we get remade ones. That’s why God came in a body, not just a spirit. It’s an unusual sci-fi action film the companion reading for which should be the New Testament and a Tom Wright primer.
It’s just a shame that the holes in the plot are so obvious that the performances are not consistent enough; better casting here, more care there and we’d have something at least as good as District 9 on our hands. Neill Blomkamp’s next film seems likely to be the next in the Alien series. He’s clearly got the talent and the backing to do it; but on such hallowed ground he’ll need to take more care than this, and have patience to match his vision. If he can harness it, it’ll be something special.
I rated this film 3/5 on rottentmatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com