I kept this Review as spoiler-free as possible! I never went far beyond the basic plot description. If you are still afraid of spoilers, but need an overall impression of the film, scroll down to “Bottom Line”.
Director Neill Blomkamp proves with his AI-fable Chappie that he only needs three main features to become a self-parody. Is he the M. Night Shyamalan of “robot action movies”? But let’s start from the beginning.
Chappie takes place in the Johannesburg of the near future, a crime-riddled hell of a city, that can only be held under control with the help of a newly developed robot police troop.
Those robots are manufactured in a company specialized on military equipment and their software is provided by the young ambitious computer-genius Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). It’s a bit of an odd place. The working atmosphere is suspiciously relaxed and the company’s boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is far too nice and indecisive to have reached such a high position. Not to speak of the lax security regulations, as employees are able to enter secret laboratories and steal high-tech equipment, yes even weapons, from the facility, without any considerable effort.
Deon for example packs a demolished police robot, which was destined for the scrapyard, into his van so he can test a forbidden “AI awareness program” he developed on the machine. Unfortunately a gang of small-time crooks, who owe money to the big crime syndicate boss, cross his plans. They want to force him to develop a remote control that can shut off police robots to enable their heist that could buy them their lives back, but as Deon reveals that this is impossible to some trickery in the remote control system, he can only save his life when he offers them to program “Chappie”, as the demolished robot will soon be called, as their accomplice.
He uploads his “Awareness-program” into Chappie’s brain and to the gangster’s amazement, the machine comes to life, behaving like a newborn child that soon shows unbelievable learning capabilities. But while the female member of the gangster trio, Yo-Landi (Yolandi Vissir) suddenly gets motherly feelings and wants to raise Chappie like a normal kid, her partner in crime Ninja (Ninja aka Watkin Tudor Jones) is inclined to make a true “gangsta” out of the tin boy, even teaching him how to demonstrate swag.
Meanwhile, Deon’s bitter colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman with a mullet, khaki shorts and hiking boots) plans to sabotage all police robots so his own defense project, a bipedal “Mecha”-like remote controlled robo-juggernaut gets approved.
If this sounds like a blend of both Short Circuit– movies and the first RoboCop, let me assure you: It’s exactly that, with a little E.T. thrown in for good measure. The fact that those very different movies are thrown into an unlikely mix, did sadly not create a unique result, but only a series of deja vu– moments that don’t add up to a well-rounded experience.
When District 9 hit the cinemas in 2009, the South African director Neill Blomkamp was soon considered as hot commodity in the world of SF-movies and rightfully so, but his sophomore effort Elysium (2013) suggested that his breakthrough movie might have been what is commonly called a “lucky accident”. The overt socio-critical metaphors that lent D9 a straightforward, gut-punching quality suddenly came over as simple-minded and trivial in Elysium, while the more sensationalist elements like the FX and the action scenes that prevented D9 from being dull, just managed to make Elysium exactly that through their overly self-indulgent use.
Just recently Neill Blomkamp admitted that he “fucked up Elysium” as the quality of the script was not on par with that of the Special Effects. One would think a confession like that so close to a new release would indicate that he learned from his mistakes, yet Chappie is just the same dilemma all over again and could be the film that finally reveals Blomkamp as a one-trick pony.
If I wanted to describe the tone of the movie I would say that the inclusion of the trashy rap-rave duo “Die Antwoord” (Yolandi Visser and Ninja) as actors and on the soundtrack is symptomatic. Like their music, Chappie is loud, obnoxious and superficial.
Without any regard to the character of the scene, the hysteric tone and the ADHD -pace never change, be it a more intimate moment or an action scene, which is soon tiring. The “shakey-cam” that provided a sense of immediacy in D9, is now just an annoying stylistic shtick that does not serve the plot at all. This is all complemented by Hans Zimmer’s pumping Electro-score which is appropriately vulgar. Equally crude is the script that feels very much like a first draft. Apparently Blomkamp wants us to believe that the resolution of the film is a culmination of different plot lines that congeal in the end, yet in fact the structure follows the same unrefined “now this happens and then this”– “chain of events”- structure as Elysium.
On the emotional plane, Chappie is pure kitsch of the hokey kind. It’s hard to deny that the antics of the titular robot (mo-capped by frequent Blomkamp- collaborator Sharlto Copley!) are just never that touching or funny. Especially cringe-worthy are the scenes that show Chappie as a wise-cracking, Afrikaans-speaking wannabe-gangstah robot, including massive “bling” and spray-on “tattoos”. Remember the last time when exposing ghetto-poseurs was funny? Exactly, that was when the last episode of Ali G was aired. Chappie’s arc of becoming a feeling and thinking individual could have provided some interesting metaphors about child soldiers and police violence, but it’s just the same old fable about individualism in the vein of Short Circuit that has long gone stale by now.
Shamefully, the likeable cast of Jackman, Weaver and Patel has no chance to shine, because like the personnel in Elysium their characters are cardboard cutouts and Blomkamp’s direction of the actors is again atrocious. Jackman’s mullet-sporting Aussie-baddie should have been a campy overacting-delight, but he plays it with such grimness that just the overacting and camp-parts remain from that equation. Neither Patel nor Weaver can elevate their characters.
Should Chappie be a BO- success, “Die Antwoord” could experience a considerable boost in world-wide popularity. Vissir and Ninja play their parts adequately, but I still don’t think they can -or should- carry a movie. Yet they maybe get the most screen time of all cast members.
At some points the film feels as Blomkamp could not wait to get to the big action showdown between the robots, but when it finally happens, it’s surprisingly underwhelming and anticlimactic. I almost felt betrayed for sitting through the preceding 90 minutes, just to get served such mind-numbing, unimaginative and perfunctory action scenes. There is also a nasty gory moment in the showdown that stands in no relation to the rest of the depicted violence in the movie and makes you wonder who the target audience of Chappie is supposed to be. The humour and the simple plot are too childish for grown-ups, the violence is too dark for kids and the gangster-swag is too obviously pandering for teens.
And then there is the epilogue. That epilogue is maybe meant to be eye-opening and uplifting, but hell are the implications that come with it creepy.
Chappie may have some of the finest CGI- robots to ever grace the screen, but it is also a crude succession of worn-out cliches that miss a new spin on them. “Tasteless, loud and obnoxious” are the adjectives to describe this barely entertaining movie.
It is too dark and violent for children and too corny and childish for adults. The emotional parts feel forced and the action is disappointing. At times it feels like an overlong music clip for the trashy South African rave-rap group “Die Antwoord”.
In the end, it may be the ultimate proof that the once promising directorial talent Neil Blomkamp is already creatively exhausted. I for one fear for the cinematic fate of a certain famous xenomorph now…