This is the third film from Neill Blomkamp, who directed District 9 and Elysium. I enjoyed both of these movies a lot, so this third movie had a lot of momentum for me. But each movie has focused on a dystopian future in South Africa, so how different can Chappie really feel?
The gist. Imagine a future where police are replaced by robots called “scouts.” The developer who created this robot, Deon (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel), is fascinated with the idea of actually developing robots with their own minds so he’s been working in his off-time to create this formula. His boss (Sigourney Weaver) is very adamant against the idea of a true artificial intelligence, so Deon steals an old scout and is going to experiment on it during his free time. Meanwhile, three criminals pinpoint Deon as the creator of these robots and they kidnap him in order to find out how to turn them off, so they can execute a big heist. When they kidnap him though, Deon has the robot with him, so they end up being present when he’s turned on. Long story short, the robot (named “Chappie”) learns how to be a person (and criminal) around these scumbags, while Deon tries to teach him about humanity. Things go awry when Deon’s disgruntled coworker (Hugh Jackman) tries to sabotage the scout program.
Chappie as a character was really fascinating. He was voiced by Sharlto Copley, who appeared as the male lead in District 9 and then as the dangerous bounty hunter in Elysium. So this role of an innocent robot is quite a different role for him. He completely sells it though, in his joy and exuberance. In terms of effects, Chappie also looks fantastic. Watching him just interact with the world is great, nonetheless the big action setpieces where he’s running and fighting real people. It all looks fantastic.
I also enjoyed Jackman as the villain, since this is a rare chance for him. I feel like he’s underutilized, in favor of other strange villains, but what he does get to do is really fun.
What doesn’t work?
This movie had a few missteps. The most notable one is the inclusion of South African rap group Die Antwoord, the pair of rappers called Ninja and Yolandi. They basically play themselves here, including using the same names, wearing their merchandise, and the soundtrack is almost exclusively theirs. I enjoy their music, especially the crazy video for Baby’s On Fire which is awesomely strange. But let’s be real, they’re not actors. It’s almost laughable but I could’ve forgiven that. What I can’t forgive is how Blomkamp wrote these characters. They are horrible people and they make decisions that don’t make sense, such as one instance where Ninja leaves Chappie out in the city to get his ass kicked, to teach him the harshness of the world. What? You have this million-dollar robot that you’re trying to use for this big heist, why would you risk your robot being stolen/destroyed/etc? I literally groaned when that happened.
They are just horrible. And when the movie comes to a climax, you almost root for the other villains (notice I said other) to win that battle. Chappie is really the only likeable character in the movie but we’re expected to care about these supporting characters that have done nothing but been awful.
And this lack of sense in the story extends to other characters. I won’t spoil anything but the action and battle scenes feature people that make stupid decisions. They get the chance to kill yet will somehow not do it. It’s just frustrating.
Chappie doesn’t compare to either District 9 or Elysium for me. It lacks focus and doesn’t dig deep into the question of artificial intelligence, but the big problem is its writing, which villainizes people we’re supposed to root for and plagues everyone with horrible decision-making skills. It’s a little too long and the ending is really unsatisfying, but I did appreciate Blomkamp’s visuals as usual, and Copley’s voiceover work for the title character was really impressive.