Chappie is a Mixed-bag Film, but at Least it Works Great as an Ad for Die Antwoord…Right?
Review by Daniel Rester
Chappie is the latest sci-fi effort from South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, who made the brilliant District 9 (2009) and the entertaining-but-less-successful Elysium (2013). Unfortunately Blomkamp’s new film is more along the lines of Elysium than District 9, except it’s even more of a mixed bag than Elysium.
Blomkamp’s Chappie tells the story of the title character (voiced and motion captured by Sharlto Copley), a robot programmed to be able to think and feel for himself. His maker: Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who usually designs police droids but has bigger breakthrough plans on his mind with Chappie. Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman in a mullet), a coworker of Wilson’s, doesn’t like Wilson’s droid work because it is sidelining his human-controlled robotic project — called Moose but looking like ED-209 from Robocop (1987).
Things go south when Wilson’s pieces and plans are stolen by a group of thugs planning a heist; the criminals include Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser — of real-life rap-rave group Die Antwoord — playing “themselves” and actor Jose Pablo Cantillo playing Amerika. Chappie is formed after this encounter, but he is torn between following the gangsters or Wilson.
The character of Chappie is likable and interesting; he is also excellently acted by Copley and breathtakingly designed by the visual geniuses from WETA. It is intriguing to see how a robot could start out with the mind of child but quickly learn and grow, eventually even struggling with the idea of consciousness. Seeing this being’s relationship with its maker is also fruit for some complex sci-fi narrative situations. However, the Chappie character actually winds up having to rescue the rest of the film, and those before-mentioned ideas are (disappointingly) only partially explored.
Blomkamp usually excels at making sci-fi that is grounded but also exciting, grimy but also eye-popping. Here his visual techniques are on full display but his storytelling choices are more questionable than compelling. Still, no one can doubt the director can cook up some well-crafted action scenes – backed here by a thrilling electronic score by Hans Zimmer.
Having Chappie be childlike and then juxtaposing that with the low-life gangster settings he is placed in could make for some layered conflict. Instead it mostly feels like Chappie is just being constantly manipulated while the tone is all over the place because of the differing characters and settings. Like Chappie himself, the film has an identity crisis, going from cute robot film to gangster heist film to commentary on police systems film to exploration of consciousness film. I commend Blomkamp and cowriter Terri Tatchell for their ambitious efforts in trying to tackle many ideas, but the screenplay could definitely have used some cleaning up and tightening before making it to the screen.
As said, Copley is terrific as Chappie. Patel and Visser turn up pretty well too, but maybe that’s just because they have some heart and conflict to play on with their characters. The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. Ninja mugs consistently as his dislikable character while Jackman looks lost – and has his talent wasted – as a one-note antagonist. Go-to sci-fi goddess Sigourney Weaver is in the film as a company head named Michelle Bradley, but she too doesn’t have much to do.
Like Jupiter Ascending from the Wachowskis earlier this year, Chappie finds a talented filmmaker dipping into many waters but losing narrative focus along the way. And like with my feelings towards the Wachowskis as filmmakers, I haven’t given up on Blomkamp yet. Quite the opposite. I’d rather see messes with ambition and some ideas than a cookie cutter rom-com any day of the week. Hopefully Blomkamp will fully swing back around with his upcoming entry in the Alien franchise.
My Score: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B-).
Viewing Recommendation: Skip It, Wait for Cable, Wait for Blu-ray Rental, See It at Matinee Price, Worth a Full-Price Ticket
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language and brief nudity).
Runtime: 2 hours.
U.S. Release Date: March 6th, 2015.