Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Chappie is a muddled misfire from director Neil Blomkamp, who stormed into the cinematic world with his thrilling sci-fi actioner District 9. His debut remains a compelling film because of its astute South African social commentary and its fantastic lead character arc that carries the bulk of the film’s emotional heft. Blomkamp’s follow-up was Elysium, a film I enjoyed for its ambition even if its execution remained faulty. He’s a director concerned with strong social issues like poverty and the innate evil within many human beings, a factor that carries over perfectly to science fiction. Yet his problems as a filmmaker have only grown more obvious and, sadly, more frustrating, as Chappie is littered with brilliant ideas that never cohesively blend. It’s an impatient film that only wants to address ideas and then move onto the next, disregarding the need to let themes simmer and grow into something unique and visionary. The performances are largely unlikable and unpalatable, while the film’s thematic message falls incredulously far from its initial message. I simply cannot connect with Blomkamp’s films when they come across as this incoherent and tone-deaf, especially when a great story is within arm’s reach.
The film’s titular character is one of many robots that works for the police force in Johannesburg. Their programmer is Deon (Dev Patel), a genius that has been developing the robots for years in hopes of finally finding a means of achieving truly artificial intelligence; that is, robots with a conscience. It’s a fascinating topic that has ultimately been done many times before in various sci-fi entries, including the film’s clear inspiration Short Circuit and last year’s Transcendence. When Deon finally cracks his code and uncovers a means of birthing an A.I. system with the ability to think and feel on its own, he creates Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley, star of District 9 and villain in Elysium). His opposition comes from his business-minded boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) and war-hungry ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman). As Deon gets involved with criminals that want to exploit the police bots, he is brought into a heist plan Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) want to execute with newly intelligent Chappie. This leads to a complete fiasco as society begins to challenge the safety of the police bots while Chappie must avoid the temptations of humanity’s evils.
The greatest problem with Chappie simply comes from its one-dimensional, unlikable characters. Yolandi and Ninja are two characters played by non-actors of the same name, who effectively act like white gangsters poorly emulating cultural stereotypes. It’s tone-deaf, particularly as the film spends the majority of its time in their company and aims to elicit sympathy from such grotesque creations. Blomkamp’s ambition is unwavering and continues to be his downfall, since he employs lofty ideas but continues to find ways to hinder their success. The implausible motivations introduced in the final half hour squander any hope of a strong payoff, with Jackman’s Vincent transforming into a poorly conceived villain with a Christian belief system and an insane thirst for blood. The film also revels in helpless violence and slow-motion murders when the audience doesn’t care about who or what is happening. Chappie is a compelling creation; he is a robot that acts as an innocent child raised in a brutally helpless and impoverished culture. Yet the characters surrounding him make the film a chore; if Chappie were on screen the entire time along with Hans Zimmer’s excitingly electronic score, maybe Blomkamp’s latest misjudgment could be saved.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)