Along with its innumerable other shortcomings, Chappie is one of the annoyingly growing number of films in which any and every character — here they run the gamut from techies to gangstas to robots — can instantly break into any computer system whenever they need to in about two seconds; a quick flurry of finger moves over the keyboard and they’re invariably in, no problem. Is there ever a movie in which characters do this and then can’t get in? This is but a minor irritant in a film well endowed with major ones, notably: unappealing one-note characters, retread concepts, implausible motivations and a ludicrous survival rate given the firepower expended upon the central figures. After the surprise and promise of District 9, this represents a further downward step for director Neill Blomkamp in the wake of the highly uneven Elysium.
At least ever since the original RoboCop 28 years ago, audiences have come to grips with the notion of cyborg and/or mechanical crime fighters, and Chappie merely flips the equation, with geeky Johannesburg police force artificial intelligence engineer Deon (Dev Patel) announcing that one of his robot cops has crossed the line to become a thinking and feeling being.
This is too much for hard-line engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who believes that the manmade soldiers are there to obey orders and not think for themselves; they have, after all, helped bring down the violent crime rate in Jo’burg. He’s also devised a giant new crime buster named The Moose, which his boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver), refuses to activate. But you don’t introduce a critter like this unless you intend to use him later on.
Unfortunately, much of the interim time is spent in the company of a trio of unsavory punks who know little but how to strike menacing poses, shriek threats and brandish weapons. In deep on the wrong side of a debt to a local crime lord, skinny and stupid Ninja and motherly punk Yo-Landi (played by the self-same Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the rave rap group Die Antwoord), along with relatively even-keeled cohort Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), manage to kidnap Chappie — whom Deon has just begun to teach about the human world — with the idea of using the robot to pull off a major heist.
Chappie, a man-size construct made mostly of what looks like gunmetal, is an eager sponge at this early stage of life, absorbing and imitating everything he sees and hears like a child. It’s supposed to be hilarious when, after his brief tutelage with the straitlaced Deon, Chappie begins speaking filthy and nasty like his new guardians, is adorned with gangsta-style bling and is taught how to be a cool badass. Instead, it comes off as cheap and even depressing, one more young soul lost to the underworld.
After persistently threatening Deon to within an inch of his life, the crims just let him go, even though he works with the cops and knows the location of the dump where the lowlifes live. Just as far-fetched is Vincent pulling a gun on Deon in the former’s office. But what permanently tips Chappie over from a drama that might deserve one’s sympathetic charity to something ridiculous is a rant by Deon about the punks’ pernicious influence on Chappie that ends with the young man fulminating that Ninja is nothing less than … a philistine! Now that’s telling him.
Ultimately, Chappie is pulled this way and that by people for whom he fills different roles: For Deon he’s the invention of a lifetime; for Ninja and Yo-Landi, he’s the child they’ll never have; and for Vincent, he’s the representation of what he hates, a sentient being rather than an unthinking soldier made to follow orders.
And for the audience, Chappie is a charmless and irritating bugger. The way he’s designed, with the barest semblance of a face, there’s no entry point to invite human feelings for him, and his often frantic speech patterns are off-putting. Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley not only voiced the character but performed the role on-set so the other actors could relate to him, his character’s actual look subsequently “painted” over the actor via CGI. The technique works flawlessly, but that doesn’t make the character lovable.
As the action mounts toward the end, any sense of plausible logistics and physical realities are tossed aside, as characters just sort of magically get from point A to B and end up right where they need to be to force an encounter or showdown. When The Moose is finally unleashed, its destructive power proves rather less all-encompassing than suspected. And while the renegade, anti-establishment outlook of the director, who wrote the script with his District 9 partner Terri Tatchell, remains unmistakable, it’s so pro forma and predictable here as to feel rote.
With the partial exception of Visser, whose punky veneer nicely melts into motherly concern and warmth, the actors are straitjacketed with unlikable characters notable for their ill-advised judgment. No one’s any fun here, even in their villainy. With the exception of the police office, most of the action takes place in particularly unsavory sections of Jo’burg, and the film at times sports a wan video look, especially in certain daytime exteriors.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, MRC, Kinberg Genre Productions
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Producers: Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg
Executive producer: Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Jules Cook
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editors: Julian Clarke, Mark Goldblatt
Music: Hans Zimmer
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Harvey
Rated R, 120 minutes