An unholy love child of Robocop, Short Circuit and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s unintentional cringe-masterpiece Radio, the sci-fi comedy Chappie cribs from multiple sources but lacks heart, humour, satirical bite, or any discernible human emotions whatsoever. It’s a weird, uncomfortable genre mashup that feels disjointed and awkward throughout, which is exacerbated by the stunt casting of Die Antwoord rappers Ninja and Yo-landa Yisser as criminal versions of themselves. Chappie marks a career nadir for writer/director Neill Blomkamp after his impressive debut (District 9) and an underwhelming but worthwhile follow up (the little-liked Elysium). Hope springs eternal, but despite impressive production design and a firm handle on VFX, the mess that is Chappie doesn’t bode well for Blomkamp’s upcoming Alien 5 film.
The near-future Johannesburg of Chappie has devolved into rampant violence and the struggling police have turned to ‘Scout Robots’ to shore up their forces and minimize on-the-job human deaths. Created by private weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, the robots lack true AI and are simply running an advanced operating system, although their creator Deon (Dev Patel, whose turn here qualifies as a step down from being up to his eyeballs in shit in Slumdog Millionaire) has been toiling away in secret to provide them with real consciousness.
Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (a sleepy and disinterested Sigourney Weaver) nixes Deon’s plan to install his recently completed AI program, citing their status as a weapons manufacturer as the reason, gnashing her teeth in the process. Adding to Deon’s problems are his insane co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a man embittered by Tetravaal’s decision to move forward with Deon’s robot designs instead of his obvious ED-209 ripoff Moose. Jackman is sporting an unfortunate mullet and stalks around the dumpy Tetravaal offices (it’s a non-descript cubicle farm) in shorts and a polo shirt, gun dangling at his side. He glares at Deon over his computer and presses a gun to Deon’s head in a clear violation of workplace safety protocols, which goes unremarked on by everyone else in the office. This is just one of the first instances that Chappie is disconnected from anything resembling reality or internal logic.
A parallel storyline follows Ninja and Yolanda as petty criminals and drug dealers. They, along with their accomplice America (Jose Pablo Cantillo), have botched a big deal at the outset of the film and owe 20 million (rand?) to local warlord Hippo (Brandon Auret). In the first of many head-slappingly stupid conversations, they alight upon the bright idea that the robot scouts are controlled by remotes, and if they could control one they could use it to pull of the fabled “one last heist” to score untold riches and leave behind their criminal ways. This brings them into robot maker Deon’s orbit and, through a series of contrived circumstances, to the creation of Chappie – the first robot invested with artificial intelligence and a soul.
After starring in District 9 and playing the unhinged antagonist in Elysium, Sharlto Copley re-teams with Blomkamp a third time to provide the voice and motion-captured performance for the titular Chappie. The look of the bot is a mix between the guards in Elyisum and the droids in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Copley does succeed as expressing much with through Chappie’s minimal facial features. Blomkamp continues to show mastery at combining high-concept effects with the gritty realism of his urban setting, making Chappie a fully realized creation. The robot has the intelligence of a child at first, having to quickly learn life lessons from his adoptive parents and maker. His ‘daddy’ Ninja provides weapons training and how to ‘make people sleep’ by stabbing them repeatedly, his ‘mommy’ Yolanda offers warmth and compassion, and Deon tries to lead Chappie down the path of good.
The long middle section is comprised of training montages and characters stating and endlessly repeating their goals: Ninja wants to complete the big heist, Deon wants to use Chappie for the good of humanity (the how is never explained), Vincent wants to sow the seeds of chaos so he can pilot his hulking battle-bot, and Yolanda wants to smoke cigarettes and pout. Chappie (and Chappie himself) veers between broad comedy and darkly serious violence. The low point of the movie comes when the robot is dropped off in the bad part of town and forced to find his way home. Mistaking him for a police scout, some gangbangers beat Chappie mercilessly in a scene made more unpleasant by the fact that Chappie is basically a child. It gets worse when he’s abducted by Vincent and further assaulted and left for dead. When Chappie finally gets home he even claims he was taken “by men in a van”. It’s weird and unnecessary, and the movie doesn’t come remotely close to finding the right balance of tone to make such a tasteless sequence work.
The climax at least delivers some solidly-staged action although the thrills are not as visceral as Blomkamp’s previous efforts. After a prolonged shootout that finally sees the larger Moose robot take flight and features some weird character choices, Chappie finally sputters towards the finish line. Any viewer goodwill left is incinerated by multiple Return of The King-style endings that try the audience’s patience and suspension of disbelief. The end result is awkward laughter and stunned “did-they-actually-make-this-movie?”-type musings.
Leaden, dull, and full of bad-to-awful acting and idiotic plotting, Chappie manages to waste its solid VFX and intriguing premise by piling on the absurdities. It also suffers greatly in comparison to the far better movies it openly steals from (although the jury’s still out on whether it’s better than Radio) and against Blomkamp’s previous, superior works. Chappie is an execrable mess, full of missed opportunities and craven product placements (Sony Vaio laptops and PS4s are omnipresent) – it’ll have audiences wishing their memories could be wiped as easily as a computer’s.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 120 minutes