Chappie (2015) – Neill Blomkamp


I didn’t haven’t any expectations going in to see Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9 (although my hopes were up [I chose to make it my 900th viewed movie]) and I was blown away. I went into Elysium, his sophomore outing, with higher expectations and came away underwhelmed (Blomkamp has said he’d like a shot to redo the film). When I realized that Chappie, the weird, gangster-looking-robot movie, was Blomkamp’s third, I approached with cautious optimism. As the reviews started to roll in, I felt the optimism drain away and just hoped for some honest entertainment. Chappie does for the most part offer that, but in light of the significant potential it squanders, it’s hard not to come away frustrated and more than a little disappointed.

In the near future (like next year), an autonomous, robotic police force deploys in South Africa to combat rampant crime with resounding success. However, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the lead designer, isn’t satisfied with his Scout line of robocops; he’s on the brink of developing a true, sentient artificial intelligence. But before he’s able to install his breakthrough AI on a decommissioned Scout robot, he’s kidnapped by a ragtag group of criminals (led by Ninja [Ninja {that is indeed the name he goes by in real life}] who needs his engineering expertise to pull off a heist to settle a looming debt. This hiccup forces Deon to install his AI in less than ideal conditions and thus Chappie, the world’s first artificial consciousness, is born. As Chappie learns who and what to trust in the world, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) plots to take Deon’s Scouts out of the picture and supplant them with his vision for the future of robotic law enforcement.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that the preceding synopsis of this film is considerably longer than most of the ones I write. In my opinion, that is the biggest problem with the film. There’s simply too much going on and the whole film suffers as a result. The storyline with Chappie’s creation and development is indispensable because he’s clearly the star of the film. Watching the character learn and grow and struggle with the conflicting voices trying to guide, nurture and manipulate him was an absolute pleasure and by far comprise the film’s best sequences (how can you not love the image of a robot whipping shuriken [ninja throwing stars] at things/people?).

Chappie’s development really should have been the singular focus of the film. And either him being polluted by his association with Ninja’s gang or Deon trying to protect him from Vincent’s machinations would have been enough of a narrative backdrop to explore Chappie’s accelerated ascent into personhood. But having both angles fighting for screen-time and ultimately drawing away from the best part of the film (Chappie) was a catastrophic miscalculation. All of this excess led to an predictably insane final sequence, rife with action movie clichés and Vincent’s MOOSE robot (which appears to be a shameless rip of the ED-209 droid from Robocop [perhaps it’s just more homage?]) literally tearing people in half.

ed 209 vs moose
ED-209 above
MOOSE below

In what seems like another in a long line of recent impressive motion capture performances, Sharlto Copley shines as the man and voice behind the totally lovable Chappie. He imbues Chappie with life and visible, tangible pain, making what would otherwise seem like absurd sequences strangely compelling and heartfelt. Dev Patel plays the scared, computer nerd more than competently once again although his character often makes some surprisingly stupid decisions (I guess it’s too much to expect a genius to be able to exercise common sense). It was definitely interesting seeing Hugh Jackman play the villain for the first time, though. He does a more than respectable job, first demonstrating reasonable, identifiable concerns with the Scout program but transitioning cleanly to just being the bad guy. The choice to remove moral ambiguity from Jackman’s character was probably not the right one, but Jackman does at least pull off the evil eyes convincingly. Most of the supporting cast is inoffensive at worst, except for Yolandi (Yo-landi Vi$$er of the South African rap-rave group “Die Antwoord”) who struggles to make the cheesy dialogue she’s provided with work.

When I heard that Blomkamp was slated to direct the next movie in the beloved Alien franchise, I was excited to see what he would do with it after the letdown that was Prometheus. But after seeing Chappie, I’m not sure if Blomkamp is capable of much more than failing to deliver on interesting concepts. After all, at this point in his career, he’s flopped more than he hasn’t. Here’s hoping he breaks even with the next one.


P.P. (Post Publishing): The movie used subtitles for one character’s dialogue although he was actually the one native South African who I felt I could consistently understand. I could have however used some subtitles for Chappie (with his heavily filtered voice and accent) and Ninja’s gang at times. I wonder how Blomkamp landed on that decision…

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