Robot Gangster Number One, 'Chappie' is Kind of a Wuss
Neill Blomkamp's new sci-fi thriller is just as frustrating as it is fun.
You know how the Prawns of District 9 love cat food? Why are beautiful details like that missing from Chappie, writer/director Neill Blomkamp's latest South African sci-fi thriller? Has the well run dry? Whereas District 9 remains an inventive, influential film, Chappie does everything it can not to invent. Buried in a flood of homages to other movies and silly comedic detours, Chappie fails to find its voice.
It's ironic then that the title robotic star of Blomkamp's film, never shuts up. But we'll get to that. Before he starts talking, Chappie is part of a new wave of robotic crime fighters, the brainchild of genius engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who works for South African weapons manufacturer TetraVaal (named for the Blomkamp short this film is based on). Deon's robots are cleaning up Johannesburg, but his success has made him a target.
On the other side of town, zef gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (played by and named for the Die Antwoord duo, Ninja and Yolandi Visser) have incurred a huge debt and plan to kidnap Deon for his "remote." They want to control the robots and own the city. They snatch Deon, but discover the scientist had his own illegal plan. Deon has stolen a "rejected" robot and plans to make it sentient with new software.
At gunpoint, Deon installs the software and it works: the robot wakes up and cowers like a frightened puppy. Deon explains to his captors it will be like an infant and must learn everything new. Yolandi embraces her new "child" and names him "Chappie." But Ninja, with a week long deadline to pay the debt, doesn't want to wait around. He puts a gun in Chappie's hand and orders him to get tough.
The second act of Chappie is a lot like Short Circuit or E.T. as the humans get to know the new life form and it learns new things. But something strange happens: Chappie never really establishes a personality. He shoots and talks gangster like Ninja (Sharlto Copley voices the robot), but he's treated as a toy more than anything. The ambitious set up to the film—that a human could give a robot a mind of his own—is undermined when the idiot criminals just make him do and say funny shit. Meanwhile, Deon isn't written to outsmart the bad guys and train Chappie properly. Instead, he runs away like a wuss and trashes his desk because he's so frustrated.
You might think Chappie is the hero, but the robot spends much of the film being beaten up or cowering in the face of Ninja's threats. He's left alone in the world where Blomkamp can use his societal themes like he does in all his movies. And he's discovered by Deon's rival, the villainous Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose own robot can't get off the ground because it's too bulky and powerful. Of course, the two robots face off in the end and Chappie eventually starts kicking ass. But it takes a long time to get there.
It's entirely frustrating watching Chappie tiptoe around and "discover" the world. While it's natural he needs to be taught, the robot learns slowly and doesn't mature. His childish personality and Copley's high-pitched voice performance combine to make a decidedly annoying robot. It doesn't start out that way, but Blomkamp gives him free will only to make him a slave to Die Antwoord. He's constantly asking permission and begging for answers. What's the point? Without a real personality, Chappie never endears himself to us.
Plus, Blomkamp shows us very little in the way of new sci-fi. Chappie is an evolved version of the robots we've seen in all the director's films, going back to Tetra Vaal. Moore's robot is an obvious homage to ED-209 from RoboCop and there are even scenes of Chappie throwing a bad guy through plate glass windows. References are a huge part of sci-fi filmmaking, but lifting entire sequences is a bit much.
Chappie is a frustrating movie. Blomkamp is such a visually arresting filmmaker, it makes things doubly worse when his script (co-written with Terri Tatchell) isn't up to par. Pragmatically, Chappie is a marvel, a flawless motion capture robot that looks as real as anything else onscreen. The production design is, likewise, vivid, inspired by zef style and Die Antwoord in urban areas and contrasted with Blomkamp's signature Kubrick-inspired, huge block letter corporate designs. The environment works. The weapons are awesome, it's just a shame more effort wasn't put into making the robot what the film wants us to believe he is: human.