To say Neill Blomkap’s Chappie is a ‘highly anticipated’ film is a bit of an overstatement, but it was at least anticipated thanks to good marketing and leftover love for Blomkamp’s District 9. Early trailers were able to relay the basic concept of a robot who feels feelings, but what really caught our attention was the robot itself, created by the effects teams at Image Engine and Weta Workshop. In terms of creating a sympathetic robotic character through visual effects and a motion capture performance by Sharlto Copley (District 9), Chappie succeeds. Unfortunately everything else in the film is mostly cliched concepts, one-note characters, and gaping plot holes.
Blomkamp described it as “Robocop meets E.T.”, which rings true in the final product. In the near future (a little too near to maintain any kind of plausibility), the police force is primarily made up of highly effective robots. This is established with opening news footage, which is apparently now every film’s solution to avoiding voiceover or text prologues to establish futuristic settings. The inventor responsible for the most significant robotic advances is Deon (Dev Patel), whose ultimate goal is to equip these robots with artificial intelligence. After a night of pounding red bulls and frantically working away, he figures out how to do this. His superior (Sigourney Weaver) has no interest in having the robots think for themselves and denies Deon’s request to test his theory. Deon steals a decommissioned police robot and is taking it home to install his new software when he’s kidnapped by some gangsters (played by South African rap group Die Antwoord), who want to use his knowledge of the policing robots to help them pull a heist. He can’t turn off the police force with a switch like they’d hoped, but they settle for what’s in his trunk. Deon completes his experiment in their hideout and Chappie is born into the thug life.
At this point, the movie is moving along quite nicely, and the main character hasn’t even been introduced yet. Chappie starts off a blank slate, a childlike robot sponging up everything around him. Deon and the female gangster, Yo-Landi, want to nurture him and help him reach his full potential as if he were their human child, but ‘Ninja’ (Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja keep their Die Antwoord pseudonyms for the film) just wants to make him “Robot Gangster no. 1”. Things start to go little off track when they seem to forget that Deon was a kidnap victim only hours before, and the gangsters basically say ‘see you tomorrow’ as they let him leave only to return the next day and continue teaching Chappie. We then get far more Die Antwoord than anyone expected, as the first time actors playing unlikeable gangsters are left to carry far too much of the film’s human element.
While it seems these kidnapping criminal lowlifes are the film’s villains at first, it turns out to be Deon’s jealous coworker Vincent, played by Hugh Jackman, who eventually becomes the villain. A seemingly unnecessary subplot about Vincent’s own robotic law enforcement project (that bares a striking resemblance to Robocop‘s ED-209 enforcement droid) that’s been out shined by Deon’s robots comes to the forefront in the second half when we see that he is willing to let the entire city tear itself apart just to make Deon look bad. The movie is generally rife with inconsistencies in tone and character. You never really know who to care about, so you ultimately don’t care about anyone.
What’s interesting is how Blomkamp has basically taken a short sequence from the 80s comedy Short Circuit 2, where the self aware robot Johnny no. 5 joins the ‘Los Locos’ gang, and made an entire film from it. Chappie’s intellectual maturity excels much faster than his emotional maturity, so while he’s learning advanced science at an inhuman rate, he’s still prone to child-like temper tantrums. I can see how this would come off as obnoxious to some people, but I actually found Chappie endearing and funny. Great special effects aside, it’s an excellent motion capture and voice performance by Copley who adopts mannerisms of the other characters around the robot. Your opinion of the Chappie character will ultimately make or break this film for you. He’s no Wall-E, but he’s also not Jar Jar Binks, as the Variety review suggested.
Chappie is simultaneously like dozens of movies you’ve seen before yet totally unique in tone. Unfortunately in this case that’s not necessarily a good thing. Apart from the aforementioned films, it also has a lot in common with Blomkamp’s incredible debut film, District 9. In addition to the setting of the a ghettoized part of Johannesburg South Africa, both films try to make us relate to misunderstood, marginalized beings. His debut just did this with much more ingenuity and panache, and it’s too bad that he still hasn’t lived up the potential he displayed there, though at least Chappie ends on a narrative high note with a somewhat original twist that probably should have happened earlier in the story.
The film isn’t even out yet and it’s already on track to be one of the worst reviewed films of the year. Excitement caused by the announcement that Blompkamp is handling the next Alien film has already begun to subside because of this. Despite its shortcomings, I was entertained by Chappie, mostly because of design and execution of the robot character and Blomkamp’s undeniable skill at shooting high concept action scenes. This film doesn’t deserve to be sunk by bad word of mouth as it delivers on the spectacle aspect that is really the most important job of this kind of movie.