Chappie review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Neill Blomkamp has become one of the most frustrating new directors that is on track to be another one trick pony. He amazed audiences in 2009 with his original and stunning sci-fi piece District 9. Shot for $30 million in South Africa, it was an astounding picture that really turned heads with its unique alien tale and eye-popping effects for such a budget. But when given $115 million for his second film Elysium, he did little to improve his writing or expand his scope. I was willing to write it off as studio meddling as Bomkamp has claimed, but his third film Chappie has made me reconsider.
Here we have yet another tale of future science fiction taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa and with another smashed-into-the-ground allegory. This time it’s the old Pinocchio tale of a robot who wants to learn and be a real boy (or at least transfer his consciousness into a better robot). Robotic weapons engineer Deon (Dev Patel) is proud of his police robots that have lowered the crime rate of Johannesburg, but is more infatuated with his experiments on artificial intelligence. With the weapons manufacturing company not interested in his newfound discovery of original thinking robots, Deon swipes a to-be-destroyed robot from the bin and prepares to breathe life into a machine. But since having a talking robot interacting with a scientist would be boring, Deon’s experiment is captured by criminal pair Ninja and Yolandi (played by South African singing duo Ninja and Yolandi Visser). Their goal is to make Deon program a robot to do their bidding which, of course, involves crimes for monetary gain.
When the robot is awakened and dubbed Chappie (voiced by Blomkamp staple Sharlto Copley), he’s the scared little puppy you’d expect for one just being born. With Ninja’s harsh tone and Yolandi’s baby voice, he quickly takes to the criminals as mommy and daddy with Deon being seen as his god. He slowly begins to learn about the world, speaking his first digital words and joyfully speaking them in the cute affectation of a small child. I’ll give Bomkamp credit for nailing the vocal mannerisms of a small child the way Chappie seems ecstatic to know everybody’s name and read a book that he can claim as his own. These scenes would be rather sweet if the rest of the film weren’t so dirty and brutal in its depiction of Chappie’s education. At one point Chappie is violently beaten by punk kids and set on fire - sending him back into the arms of Yolandi with a frightened mentality and a questioning of humanity. I’d feel bad for the CGI character if his development wasn’t as artificial as he was.
Ninja intentionally teaches Chappie all the wrong lessons and lies to his face in the name of threatening others and stealing cars. Deon tries to convince Chappie he is more than a weapon, neglecting to mention his limited battery life of a few days. And, of course, there’s the vindictive engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who favors bigger weapons over touchy-feely robots. Early on, we’re introduced to his bulky mechanical war machine that he’s itching to send out into the field. It’s teased so many times in the picture that it's rather underwhelming when it’s finally revealed as a bloated ED-209 from Robocop. Blomkamp doesn’t even try to hide this fact as the mecha monstrosity matches the jerky movement of ED-209’s stop-motion special effects.
For what it’s worth, the special effects of the titular character are rather impressive given the budget being half that of Elysium. If there’s one thing Blomkamp does perfectly more than any other sci-fi director, it’s his uncanny ability to mesh fully-articulated robots into a live-action film. The way Chappie interacts with every human character, touching some and threatening others, always managed to hold my attention. But this is a muscle Blomkamp has been flexing for far too long in each of his films. Computer graphics have now reached a point where it’s no longer a question of “how” as it is “what” you do with that technology. Blomkamp has the skill to direct, but he needs a better story to work from given that this is the third one he has wrote. Is he that afraid to pursue something outside his safe zone of simple allegories within South Africa? Somebody really needs to hold his feet to the fire as this man was once a promising director who now appears to be holding himself back.
The sad truth is that Chappie does little more than rehash Neil Blomkamp’s template with a thick coating of Robocop and Short Circuit. Combining several aspects of both those films, it’s a messy movie that never truly delivers on the charisma of Short Circuit or the tongue-in-cheek tone of Robocop. One moment we’re watching Chappie paint a pretty picture with curious enthusiasm, the next we’re watching him carjack people with a threatening tone. Ultimately, he becomes a super-smart being that has mastered the fine art of brain switch. The Iron Giant this being is not. Chappie exists as a clunky collection of sweet movie robots, appearing more as a subject of marquee value than true personality. For all its cute and visuals, Chappie doesn’t have many original thoughts in its head.