After emphatically bursting onto the scene with the outstanding ‘District 9,’ director Neill Blomkamp has struggled to recapture the same
creative spirit that fueled his debut feature.
His latest film, ‘Chappie,’ shows flashes of brilliance, but collapses in its directionless final act.
In a crime plagued near future Johannesburg, a robotic police force is introduced. Among them is Number 22, who is decommissioned due
to irreparable damage to his battery unit. 22 is stolen and given a consciousness program by genius programmer Deon Wilson, played by
Dev Patel. Thus, Chappie is born.
On the brink of his ultimate creation, Deon is kidnapped by a gang of criminals who take Chappie for their own.
The references to ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Robocop’ are obvious and I won’t go into them here. There’s even a rival designer (Hugh Jackman)
creating a competing law enforcement platform that bears a striking resemblance to the ED-209 from the latter.
The film also feels like a bizarre companion piece to Blomkamp’s ‘District 9’ with its South African setting, strange sense of humor and an
opening sequence comprised of news footage.
All of Blomkamp’s films (which he also co-wrote) have involved themes of inequality, but ‘Chappie’ is a bit less focused in delivering a
message. We see how Chappie himself is discriminated against, but it doesn’t feel as socially-motivated as either ‘District 9’ or ‘Elysium.’
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Blomkamp attempts to tell a more personal story, with the child-like Chappie coming to terms with his
creation, as well as being raised by his adoptive, criminal parents.
Chappie’s damaged battery serves as a metaphor for mortality, with the sentient robot even confronting Deon about why he chose to give
him consciousness knowing he would eventually shut down.
There are certainly some clever ideas at work, but the film’s devolvement into silly action and overwrought emotion in the final act wipes
away its positive attributes by the time the credits roll.
The crown jewel of the film is Chappie himself. Performed by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley and brought to life via outstanding digital
animation, Chappie steals the show. Many of the film’s best sequences involve his growth from innocent and frightened to powerful and
Copley does an outstanding job in playing Chappie as a sympathetic figure who is unknowingly sent down a bad path by kidnappers/parents
Ninja and Yolandi (Watkin ‘Ninja’ Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser of the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord).
The pair’s off-the-wall performances (and ridiculous hair and wardrobe) are a constant source of amusement and humor. Yolandi
empathizes with Chappie and shows him motherly affection, while Ninja is a harsh father figure who teaches the robot how to hold his gun
sideways and, in a hilarious bit, how to walk cool like daddy does.
The effects and animation for Chappie are outstanding in these character driven scenes. Copley’s mannerisms and expressions are
portrayed through illuminated displays and the movement of various mechanisms, including his adorable rabbit ears.
There are a lot of good ideas in ‘Chappie,’ and some of them are executed well. Unfortunately, Jackman’s evil plot to shut down the robot
police force and install his own mechs falls flat. It seems to serve only as a convenient way to introduce a villain and setup the climax’s
major action setpiece.
‘Chappie’ is based on a short film by Blomkamp (‘Tetra Vaal’ from 2004) and shows the telltale signs of forced expansion. The film overstays
its welcome and hits a wall in its forgettable final act.
The bizarre final sequences fail to bring a satisfying conclusion to the story, and only serve to further baffle us as to what Blomkamp is
really trying to say.
‘Chappie’ isn’t a bad film. It may be just bizarre enough to be worth a viewing for hardcore sci-fi fans.
Sci-fi fan or not, however, ‘Chappie’ can’t be recommended as more than a strange curiosity piece. Blomkamp has created something with a
tone and setting that feels unique and very much his own vision. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it a good film.
(out of four)
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi
Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by: Trent Opaloch
Released: March 5, 2015; 120 Minutes