In a world where we already have ROBOCOP, then why do we need actually need a CHAPPIE? Not only was the morality of robotic law enforcement already explored in fine fashion in Paul Verhoeven’s classic (and somewhat undermined in the remake), but it didn’t leave much more to discuss if the concept was re-visited further down the line. Neill Blomkamp is good director with a clear vision, but his latest doesn’t even outsmart the overblown ELYSIUM, and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the near-perfect DISTRICT 9.
Not far into the future, Johannesburg is patrolled by armed artificially intelligent police robots in an attempt to cut the crime rate in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. When one of the robots is damaged beyond repair, his creator Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) gives him an experimental chip that allows him to learn, and “Chappie” (Sharlto Copley) is born. Together with a gang of crooks with plans of their own for Chappie, Deon attempts to teach his creation to be human, while a jealous and violent rival ( Hugh Jackman) hunts them down.
Something seems to have happened in the edit of this film. Blomkamp isn’t an incoherent filmmaker by habit, so surely he must have noticed the vast bounds in logic he asks his audience to make? You can suspend your disbelief for a time, but with so little explanation it feels like we’re being left adrift by Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell’s plotting. As it is, there’s no setup, and a major plot point in the third act just arrives and we’re supposed to accept it.
I also have to report the presence of one of my pet peeves: unnecessary subtitling. This again is probably a last-minute addition after a test screening as I seriously doubt Blomkamp wanted to patronise the accents of his home nation. Unnecessary subtitling is annoying enough, but inconsistent unnecessary subtitling is even worse – some characters are captioned, others (with equivalently strong accents) are not. This just ends up being distracting.
Being a Sony picture, need I mention the obscene levels of self-advertising? I know all studios do it, but Sony seem particularly egregious proponents of late. Did I really just witness our robo-protagonist using PS4s to save the day? Cape Town Rap duo Die Antwoort also got a really good deal, not only starring in the film but providing music for it whenever Hans Zimmer needed a rest.
Chappie himself is admittedly a very well-realised character in both his visual execution and in the complex behaviour and dog/toddler mannerisms given to him by the flawless-as-usual Sharlto Copley’s performance capture. The scenes of him learning how the world works are excellent, but his action scenes, while competently constructed, aren’t as exciting or original as they should be (the finale is literally Chappie fighting an ED-209 rip-off).
As for the rest of the cast, Die Antwoord (Yolandi Visser and Ninja) are both really good as small-time gangsters who have very different views on how best to treat Chappie and Dev Patel does the inventor with a heart of gold bit well. While it’s nice to see Hugh Jackman not doing Wolverine for a change, he’s a bit of a nothing villain, and the scariest aspect of his character are his mullet and his preference for really short shorts. Anyone expecting a significant Sigourney Weaver role will leave disappointed – she’s in about three scenes as the CEO of a weapons manufacturer, and none of them are particularly significant to the film as a whole.
Blomkamp clearly still has something to say in his ongoing dissertation on South African injustice, and having such a prominent voice from outside Hollywood working within it and offering a different perspective on the world is as it should be. He does need to careful to hold on to what makes him distinctive, as he’s just starting to show hints of industry homogenisation creeping into his work. With a tighter script and a few more original ideas, Chappie might have been something special. As it is, it’s good-looking and well performed, but mostly forgettable. Still, Blomkamp’s ALIEN movie sounds all kinds of fun! SSP