Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley
Buried deep within the bullet-riddled chassis of Neill Blomkamp’s story of a police robot gifted with artificial intelligence, there’s a semblance of a beating heart; a heart and emotional depth that’s struggling to break free from the chains of the explosions, shootouts and narrative foibles that restrain it.
Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is many things. Part science fiction allegory with allusions to Pinocchio mixed in with Robocop and Short Circuit for good measure, part heartwarming family drama and part popcorn action flick. Herein lies the problem with the film. Like the title character himself, Chappie suffers from a major identity crisis, never fully knowing what it wants to be.
It’s tough for directors like Blomkamp; a director with the unfortunate double edged sword of breaking onto the scene with a startling debut that singled him out as a future sparkling talent who would surely go on to make many masterpieces. The fact that his two follow ups since then have not lived up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon him could be the reason why Blomkamp’s latest has suffered such scorn at the keyboards of film critics. Chappie is not nearly as bad as some would have you believe, but nor does it fulfill the promise of its lofty ambitions.
The story imagines a near future Johannesburg in which law enforcement has become populated with a group of highly efficient and effective robotic units, nicknamed ‘Scouts’. Their designer (Dev Patel) successfully constructs an AI patch that will allow for a fully sentient robot that will be able to think, learn and write poetry for themselves. But, as his boss points out (Sigourney Weaver in a savagely underwritten role), robots that can write poetry are no good for the arms industry.
A determined Deon installs his new design into a faulty unit and Chappie is born. However, through a series of remarkable contrivances, Chappie is kidnapped by a gang of thieves who plan to use him in a major heist. Chappie’s new adopted family teach the young susceptible robot what it means to “be cool”, alongside how to swear and shoot guns.
Meanwhile, rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman sporting a very unsavory mullet) sets out to hunt down Chappie with his own heavy metal police unit, The Moose.
One of the great-underrated joys of Blomkamp’s work is that he has a rare skill for managing to keep the science grounded in the physical world. Like his two previous efforts before, Chappie and the rest of his robotic scouts never feel out of place and mesh beautifully with the cityscape and dust bowl lawless aesthetic of Johannesburg. Much of this also has to do with the sterling visual effects work that has gone in to create Chappie himself.
While never reaching Andy Serkis greatness, Sharlto Copley and the visual effects team do a miraculous job of building Chappie’s character from young, naïve child, to rebellious teenage scoundrel. Copley’s childlike movements and Chappie’s welcoming design – complete with bullet-ridden exoskeleton and ‘Reject’ stickers plastered all over it – fuse the robot to reality. Never once do you feel as if you’re watching a visual effect, but rather a walking, talking machine with a mind of its own.
It is his interactions with Yolandi Visser’s adoptive mother figure that truly lend the film its heart. Unlike her frustratingly annoying counterpart, Ninja, Yolandi brings a warmth and soul to the film, and her scenes with Chappie are completely believable and surprisingly moving.
Once Chappie’s new adoptive family begins teaching him the tools of the trade, things begin to unravel. Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell’s narrative choices make no sense in the grand scheme of things. A scene in which the gang dumps Chappie in the middle of a hostile quarter of town never rings true, while more and more contrivances are used constantly to make sure that all our characters and the villains end up in the same place.
For his part, Jackman’s former military man is rudimentary one note. Sporting a villainous hairdo that Javier Bardem would be proud of, Jackman does his best, but is ultimately left with not much to do but scowl, issue angry threats and control the big bad robot in the film’s explosive final third.
Despite the range of ideas that Blomkamp infuses within Chappie, it all becomes lost in a haze of gunfire and explosions. Tonally and narratively speaking, the film is a complete mess. It’s a jumble of good parts, pulled this way and that until the final result becomes an unrecognizable assortment of tones and genres that never really gel together.
Still, if you want a perfectly adequate way to kill two hours of your time, then you could do far worse.