Chappie: Neill Blomkamp’s swansong, or a stepping stone to future marvels? (retrospective)

District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s first feature picture, launched him into the spotlight in 2009. Audiences praised the movie’s freshness and new viewpoint, and it was a critical and financial success. Then followed Blomkamp’s second movie, Elysium, which received mixed reviews and left many fans disappointed. Even Blomkamp eventually acknowledged that the Elysium script was a bit of a letdown.

So there was pressure when Blomkamp revealed Chappie as his third movie. Could he rekindle District 9’s magic and save face after Elysium? Or would Chappie be yet another letdown?

Let’s just say that Chappie wasn’t exactly as good as everyone had hoped. While the theory of the movie—a sentient robot that learns to think and feel like a human—is intriguing, the execution is a little lacklustre. It has been criticised for being “formulaic” and “disappointing,” while others have remarked it is “too emotional” and “lacks substance.”

Let’s give Blomkamp some credit, though. It’s challenging to follow up a smash like District 9, but at least he experimented with Chappie. And let’s not overlook the fact that Blomkamp is still a gifted director with a distinct style. There’s also the fact that the movie did give us the iconic picture of Die Antwoord as futuristic bandits.

Neill Blomkamp directed two sci-fi movies, Chappie and Elysium, but their stories and themes couldn’t be more dissimilar.

In the dystopian future shown in the film Elysium, the affluent have left Earth and now reside on an opulent space station named Elysium, leaving the rest of humanity to battle for survival on the polluted and overpopulated earth. Former criminal Matt Damon plays the lead character, who travels to Elysium in search of medical care after being exposed to dangerous radiation levels. While everything is going on, a strong businesswoman, played by Jodie Foster, works to uphold Elysium’s rigorous immigration regulations and keep any “undesirables” outside the station.

Chappie, on the other hand, takes place in a Johannesburg in the not too distant future when robotic police forces have been introduced to reduce crime. A bunch of gangsters capture one of these robots by the name of Chappie, who then develops consciousness and starts to learn about human emotions and behaviour. Chappie encounters obstacles from both the police and the crooks who made him as he starts to resemble a human.

Chappie is concerned with artificial intelligence, consciousness, and what it means to be human, whereas Elysium concentrates on issues of class inequality, immigration, and healthcare. Although both movies have their advantages and disadvantages, their themes and plots ultimately make them completely distinct from one another.

In the setting of District 9, a mockumentary-style movie, aliens have colonised Earth and are compelled to dwell in a neighbourhood that resembles a slum. The official responsible for removing the aliens from District 9 and moving them to a new community is Wikus Van De Merwe, who is the focus of the movie. Things change, though, when Wikus comes into contact with extraterrestrial technology and starts to change into one of the aliens.

The aesthetic and tone of District 9 and Blomkamp’s later movies differ significantly. The action sci-fi movies Elysium and Chappie are more conventional, whereas District 9 has a gritty, documentary-like vibe. The treatment of the aliens in the movie is a clear allegory for South Africa’s history of apartheid, hence the movie also deals with themes of xenophobia, racism, and segregation.

The protagonist is another distinction. Whereas Wikus in District 9 is a flawed and nuanced character who goes through a dramatic transition during the movie, Chappie and Elysium have more conventional hero archetypes. This increases the emotional impact of the plot and enables a more complex investigation of the movie’s topics.

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