‘Chappie’ Is a Surreal Mess of Missed Opportunities
Writer-director Neil Blomkamp asks tough questions then distracts us with violence
Robots storm the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa. Invincible and semi-intelligent robotic police officers rip criminals from stolen cars and take bullet after bullet without going down.
Hugh Jackman wears a mullet and stomps around office cubicles. He threatens a fellow employee with a pistol, then claims the whole incident is just a prank. The magazine is empty. No one seems to care.
South African rap superstars Die Antwoord pretend to be low-level gangsters. They steal cars, rob banks and kill people all while teaching an impressionable and super-intelligent robot named Chappie how to be a hardcore criminal.
Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, the engineer behind both the police-bots and their intelligent, wannabe-gangster brother. Wilson is locked in a battle for the soul of his creation with the thugs teaching him how to be a baddie.
Welcome to Chappie, a beautiful disaster.
There’s a lot of great stuff in Chappie. It starts strong, touches on cultural fears and feels prescient.
Are drones safe? Should we create artificial intelligence? What is the nature of consciousness? The film asks these questions, then tosses them aside to focus on beautiful action sequences drenched in blood and gore.
It’s the near future and the police of Johannesburg rely on a small army of indestructible robots to do the bulk of the violent policing. It works. The robots terrify the city’s criminals and the crime rate plummets.
Wilson is the engineer behind the ’bots. He’s created a new kind of artificial intelligence at home, one that might be smarter than people. Wilson wants to test it, but his boss—played by a confused looking Sigourney Weaver—tells him no.
The company is happy with Wilson’s robots … why make them smarter?
So Wilson steals a damaged droid, uploads the program and creates Chappie—the world’s first truly conscious machine. Then gangsters seeking a way to shut down the police-bots kidnap Wilson and Chappie.
And then the film starts to get weird.
South African rappers Ninja and Yolandi play gangsters named … Ninja and Yolandi. They get the most screen time in Chappie, and how much audiences enjoy the film is directly related to how much they enjoy these two. The more familiar a viewer is with Die Antwoord, the more fun they’ll have.
The group’s music comprises 90 percent of the soundtrack, and the bulk of the film consists of amusing moments between the rappers and the robot.
Ninja needs Chappie to help him steal $20 million to pay off another criminal, but the robot refuses to hurt people. So Ninja convinces Chappie that blades won’t kill but induce sleep.
Watching the robot hurl shurikens and knives at guards while screaming, “Go to sleep!” is delightful. I felt as if I was watching a cartoon from the 1980s. In a lot of ways, Chappie is just an R-rated version of Short Circuit—the Steve Guttenberg-led ’80s schlock-fest that replayed endlessly on basic cable when I was a kid.
Die Antwoord and the ultra-violence make the movie a lot of fun, but also ultimately empty and disappointing.
Neill Blomkamp—the South African auteur behind the Oscar-nominated District 9—wrote and directed the movie. Chappie and District 9 follow similar trajectories.
Both start strong, feature a fascinating performance from Sharlto Copley—Chappie in Chappie and the lead in District 9—and a surreal, dystopian vision of Johannesburg.
In both films, the story falls apart halfway through, and the picture descends into a video-game style orgy of violence and special effects. It’s as if Michael Bay took a few philosophy courses at community college.
Then there’s Hugh Jackman.
Jackman’s performance as Vincent Moore, Wilson’s rival, is one of the film’s bright spots. Moore is a former soldier with his own ideas about how to protect humanity from itself. Namely, with a giant, human-controlled ED-209 knockoff called the “Moose.”
The police like Wilson’s discrete ’droids more than Moore’s bulky Moose, so they refuse to buy it and the defense company cuts Moore’s funding. But he doesn’t trust Wilson’s robots, and spends the film trying to ruin him.
Everyone works with someone like Moore. He’s aggressive when he doesn’t need to be, wears shorts with socks pulled all the way up to his knees, squeezes a football while he walks around the office and makes sure everyone knows he’s carrying a handgun.
He’s the office bully—and Jackman renders him well, even though he doesn’t have much to work with. Moore nudges the sluggish plot forward with his antics. On paper, he’s the movie’s antagonist. But this is a Blomkamp movie and so—as in all his films—the real villain is humanity.
That, and the director’s inability to reign in his ambition and deliver a film that lives up to his considerable potential.