After District 9 there was huge amounts of excitement around director Neill Blomkamp, but Elysium disappointed and while Chappie is a bit of an improvement, it still has some problems.
Set a few years into the future, Johannesburg has become the first city in the world to deploy a robotic police force, with squadrons of humanoid ‘scouts’ keeping the peace and ensuring the criminals don’t get the upper hand. Deon (Dev Patel), who is one of the programmers behind the droids, thinks he’s worked out how to take things further – by giving a robot true human consciousness – but the company he works for aren’t interested.
However, he gets the chance when he is kidnapped by wannabe gangsters Ninja (Ninja) and Yo-Landi (Yo-Landi Visser), who want him to reactivate a broken bot. Deon downloads his new programme into the machine, but to Ninja’s annoyance he doesn’t immediately get a super-smart robot who can help him with crimes, instead getting a blank slate that needs to learn and develop a personality.
Deon understandably wants the machine – which soon gets nicknamed Chappie – to become a normal, moral ‘person’, but Ninja needs Chappie’s criminal help to get him out of a jam, and so he starts to lead the fast-growing-up bot astray. There’s also another major fly in the ointment in the form of Deon’s colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who’s not pleased that his own robotics programme, the gigantic Moose, has been rendered obsolete by the far smarter, autonomous scouts, and who will do anything to get his machine back into the game.
As with Elysium, there are all sorts of brilliant ideas floating through Chappie, from the surprisingly smart idea of Chappie being a wannabe gangster robot (which is both funny and allows it to bring in some interesting social ideas) to the intriguing notion of watching a machine mentally grow from infancy into its teenage years over the course of a few days.
However, around that things are a lot more problematic, with a lot of annoying characters, plot points that don’t really make a huge amount of sense and a worldview that seems to think its painting things in shades of grey but is actually incredibly black and white. Unfortunately, while it has lots of ideas, it doesn’t really know where to take them, whether it’s what Chappie having a consciousness actually means or how a sense of morality is created – especially considering the scumminess and inhumanity of the world Chappie is growing up in.
While it’s interesting to see Hugh Jackman as a villain – and sporting an ugly mini-mullet – his character is way too over the top; a spitting, frothing bad guy who’s so extreme he doesn’t seem real. Indeed that’s the problem with quite a lot of the characters, that the film has things it wants them want them to do in order to create conflict or to make a point, but that rarely involves them coming across as real people. It is interesting to create a movie where the most realistic ‘human’ is a robot, but it’s not enough.
That said, Chappie is a brilliant creation, mixing some utterly believable special effects with an excellent motion capture performance from Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, along with humour, humanity and plenty of interesting ideas. It’s just that what’s going on around him isn’t as interesting as Chappie himself, with the result that it’s difficult not to be constantly reminded of other, better movies that have played with similar themes, from Blade Runner to Short Circuit.
Overall Verdict: Chappie looks incredible and it’s brimming over with great ideas, but unfortunately it isn’t sure what to do with either them or the plot, leaving it as a look at what makes us human, set amongst a lot of characters who don’t seem like actual people at all – except for the robot.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac