Cast: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Sharlto Copley
Director: Neil Blomkamp
Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Neil Blomkamp really needs to hire a proper screenwriter. This isn't simply healthy career advice or a kind of throwaway joke; but rather an urgent plea for a filmmaker whose been riding the coattails of his surprise 2009 hit District 9 far too long. Though Elysium was certainly a misfire, it was nonetheless an admirable effort with something on his mind amidst all the bald mechanized Matt Damon action beats and heavy-handed healthcare/immigration metaphors. Chappie, however, is more than simply a misfire. It's a complete disaster of tone and ideas; a film which feels, like it's titular character, cobbled together from spare parts. Sure, the torrent of Short Circuit jokes pouring in lately does feel like a bit of a cheap shot, but at least that 80s relic had moments where things slowed down enough to question Johnny Five's place in the world. Here, Blomkamp attempts to marry his bombastic action-heavy style with a steak of sentimentalism that feels disingenuous, almost as if he wants to lambast the cruelty of humanity while also managing to traffic in lame product placement; from Red Bull to PS4, just to reassure us that even if the world is going to hell, we can still have our toys.
From the outset, Blomkamp attempts to ground his story in a semi-believable, slightly futuristic world; in this case, his usual stopping grounds of Johannesburg, South Africa. There's the typical opening credits expository crawl; this time with Anderson Cooper reporting on how the implementation of robot scouts into the inner cities has lessened crime rates. We meet Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a tech corp employee of Tetra Vaal who designed the robot droids and whose obsession with creating a sentient machine draws the ire of a weapons specialist (Hugh Jackman, whose fashion mullet is doing most of the heavy lifting). Sigourney Weaver also shows up as a bafflingly inept CEO of the robotics firm, on hand to basically scowl and bark orders at her underlings. Look closely at Weaver's face during her scenes opposite Jackman, and one can clearly glimpse the look of an actor's supreme embarrassment.
Once Deon breaks the code and figures out how to create a robot with consciousness (seen through a feverish montage in which extreme sweating, lightning-fast typing, and frat boy downing of energy drinks is crucial), the stage is set for Blomkamp to deliver what essentially amounts to a coming-of-age dystopian sci-fi robot story. Most problematic is the casting of Rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of South African techno-rap duo Die Antwoord as loopy criminals raising Chappie (voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley) after kidnapping Deon and forcing him to inform the robot's upbringing. Essentially playing themselves, Ninja and Visser have a very specific appeal; namely, aggressively irritating, and the fact that they are given major screen time means that Chappie often feels like an extended music video, or worse, a lame crossbreed of Robocop and Mad Max. Never before has one yearned so strongly for the thespian abilities of Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy.
In terms of tone; certain sequences, such as Chappie learning to paint and being read a children's book in bed, feel beamed in from a more sweetly innocent film. However, Blomkamp is much too busy staging chaotically violent action scenes in between the sentiment, most of which lack genuine tension or keen sense of geography, to care about tonal consistency. At times, the film seems to be going for laughs; such as an extended car robbery sequence in which Chappie, decked out with gangsta bling, does some thug-like criminal activity. At others, Blomkamp goes for the big messages; such as nature vs. nurture, police brutality/riot mentality, and the difference between mechanized and human souls. All of this, from the cloying comedic bits to the more serious-minded themes, are handled clumsily. A crumb of an interesting idea, such as consciousness being stored on a flash drive, are introduced, but largely ignored in lieu of painful "let's teach Chappie how to be a gun-toting badass" montages and migrane-inducing action scenes.
For a film purporting to be about the evolution of intelligence, Chappie is just as loud and obnoxiously dumb as Michael Bay's Transformers series, but it's glaring flaws are often camouflaged by Blomkamp's deft ability at seamlessly integrating digital effects into real-world locations. From an aesthetic standpoint, the film is a marvel of special effects wizardry, but who cares when the narrative is so familiar and the characters so obscenely annoying? Patel oversells the age-old "creator" archetype by acting frantic and high-strung, but it's not really his fault since the character has absolutely no interior life. Meanwhile, Jackman sports that aforementioned mullet and tight cargo shorts, bellowing on about evil sentient machines while tinkering with his own creation; a monolithic urban police droid controlled by humans using a helmet. Jackman looks lost throughout; growling, grimacing, and doing things no employee of a major company would allow, much less tolerate. In a film of extreme atonality, Jackman's one-dimensional hater of A.I. seems especially unbelievable. A more thoughtful picture would have given his character's side of the argument more weight and subtlety, but Blomkamp, not a ringleader of subtlety to begin with, makes this entire thread irrelevant other than to give Deon and Chappie a formidable antagonist. Copley's motion-captured movements, meanwhile, are wonderfully attuned to the moment, but the voice is all wrong. Coming off like a shrill baby trapped inside a metallic prison, Chappie is often just as grating as the archly colorful supporting cast around him, which is too bad since the combination of practical and CGI effects is often quite graceful.
Chappie ultimately comes down to an explosive battle between the villainous Jackman, a string of over-the-top warlords slinging golden guns, and a robot learning how corrupt humanity can be. Blomkamp tries to skirt around the fact that his movie has nothing to say about artificial intelligence and identity by turning up the volume, which aside from cartoonish characters and relentless violence, also includes Hans Zimmer's predictably bombastic score; alternating between analog synths and pummeling action-themed crescendos. It's a measure of the film's failure when during the finale a major character is shot through the heart, blood splattering the lens in artistic slow-mo, and we as an audience feel about as much as a police robot droid. It's time for a change of scenery Mr. Blomkamp, and get that screenwriter on tap, pronto.