TO LIKE A Neill Blomkamp film is to become his apologist. After only two features, District 9 and Elysium, he's become our generation's definitive sci-fi auteur. His work is visionary, unmistakable, and rigorously designed—each film he does is his, from the thick veneer of grime to his native South African patois. Most distinctively, his visions of the future are dominated as much by poverty as by affluence. And if you care about big-budget spaceships and societies and robot suits (as I do), you want him to succeed. His heart is in the right place, and for a high-profile genre director, that's a rare thing indeed.
The problem is he can't tell a story to save his fucking life.
But let's go back to the part about how he's a technical virtuoso, about how his worlds feel lived in, and lived in hard, about how his films have a strong (if frequently ham-handed) moral underpinning that can shift action-heavy spectacle into very expensive allegory. Blomkamp is a fierce, original voice in a field that tends to produce soulless, grey-brown shooting galleries. But when it comes to tone, pacing, and character, Blomkamp's voice is garbled and clumsy—which makes each film he makes half-masterpiece and half-trainwreck.
Chappie is Pinocchio by way of RoboCop. The thematic bones are fine. The titular robot is impeccably rendered and unquestionably the best part of the film. Chappie's problems aren't plot holes, because come at me with plot holes for any Spielberg film (there's always plenty). Chappie's problems aren't those of thinly drawn archetypal characters, because hey, James Cameron. Chappie's problem is that Blomkamp's movies still don't gel. Leaving us, the faithful, to keep hoping that his next one will.