Chappie (2015) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 120 min.
Cast: Sharlto Copley (voice), Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Brandon Auret
Small role: Anderson Cooper
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Review published March 6, 2015
Neill Blomkamp's own short from 2004, Tetra Vaal, provides the inspiration for this mid-budget expansion that will make people wonder if the inspiration weren't really from a musing on, "What if Short Circuit's Johnny 5 were put into the role of Murphy in RoboCop?"
Chappie is the name of a Johannesburg-based police robot (dubbed a 'Scout') who has had a 'consciousness script' uploaded into it that gives it the ability to perceive the world with a fresh, clean slate, just as a human baby would. Kidnapped away from his maker, Tetravaal engineer Deon (Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), by a trio gang of desperate thugs looking to use the robot to perform one big heist to get them out of mortal danger from the city's most bloodthirsty crime lord, Hippo (Auret, Durban Poison), Chappie is an innocent that is indoctrinated into the ways of gangsta street thuggery and crime, contrary to his original programming.
Meanwhile, ambitious and overly aggressive coworker Vincent Moore (Jackman, Days of Future Past) is about to hatch a plan to supplant Deon's popular and highly effective designs with an ultra-menacing one of his own, but to do that, he's going to have to make the streets of Johannesburg a lot more dangerous and deadly.
After what many consider to be a disappointing sophomore effort in Elysium, Blomkamp reteams with his wife and screenwriting collaborator from District 9, Terri Tatchell, hoping that this would be the key ingredient that will bring about his early critical success. Along for the ride yet again is Blomkamp regular, Sharlto Copley (Maleficent, Oldboy), who provides the voice and motion capture movements of our titular hero.
Perhaps the best part of Chappie is its integration of special effects with live-action scenarios, as the hordes of Scouts and other complex tech are seamlessly part of the world we see, in an astonishing feat of design that at no time appears to look like CGI, at least not to my eyes. Metal bodies with fast-flowing, sophisticated movements look mighty convincing.
What ultimately proves Chappie's undoing, however, is that which has plagued every Blomkamp effort to date: tone. Somehow, the uneven tone manages to work for District 9, with its absurd surrealism, noise and ugliness that manages to accentuate rather than detract from the madness that is apartheid in South Africa. In Elysium, untethered by more important social commentary (something about immigration, but not fully cooked), the mix of wacked-out humorous characters and repugnant violence strained to blend satisfactorily, resulting in a mishmash of interesting ideas that only play well in spurts.
Despite a big budget and a couple of big-name stars in Jackman and Weaver, Chappie suffers from not only Elysium's wild extremes that seem to cancel out one another, but also from too many familiar ideas that are too ripe in the consciousness to gain traction here. Yes, Short Circuit was super-cute family sci-fi and RoboCop was off-the-chain insane anarchy for adults, but Chappie is neither as cute nor as scary-bonkers as those films, respectively, leaving it feeling like things we've seen before but done more successfully elsewhere.
Action scenes take over, and while Chappie is meant to be a sympathetic, child-like protagonist we want to root for and are supposed to wince when it gets in harm's way, the robot with consciousness is built up too fast and with too many narrative shortcuts for us to cotton to it as a plausible and relatable 'being'. Plus, Chappie just seems another oddball and loopy character in a world filled with insanity. We're unable to find the time to fine tune to Chappie's immense specialness when everyone else in the film is mugging wildly over the top like a cartoonish baddie from a Mad Max film.
A few more quiet and soft-sold moments would go a long way to making Chappie balance out, but Blomkamp keeps driving to be bigger, bolder, brasher, ruder, cruder than anything he's done before. He's trying to make a rip-roaring, mad-dash yarn, but the balance strays too heavily into joylessly repugnant depictions of cinematically steroidal overaggressiveness.
If there's an underlying premise, perhaps, it's that criminality and thuggery are so often learned things from one's upringing and environment, and not just because someone is from a certain race or culture. Chappie has no genetic make-up whatsoever, and honestly wants to do what's best, but he's taught to be something more than his benign self from people who in turn were taught that the dishonest path is the only way to survive. It's an interesting concept, but it's almost wholly buried under the overbearing style of Blomkamp, who drives even subtle, delicate points to smithereens with the massive force of an industrial pile driver.
Blomkamp's fourth film, reportedly will be the retcon sequel to Aliens, and given that his films have gotten progressively less entertaining or interesting, and the fact that he seemingly can't get a decent performance out of Weaver (though I did like her in-joke reading of the line, "Burn him to ASH!", recalling the fiery fate of the robot character named Ash in Alien), expectations of a return to former glory for that franchise will now be muted. He's still an interesting filmmaker worth following, but wildly inconsistent. Hopefully, like Chappie, his further experience and maturity will help him grow into a better, more thoughtfully creative force that we can all fully admire.
©2015 Vince Leo