Neill Blomkamp’s third film, about a police android given human like intelligence and emotions, treads much the same ground as dozens of sci-fi films before it, including his own debut feature, District 9, but comes out as much more than the sum of its parts crafting an odd and oddly affecting actioner.
After District 9’s apartheid allegory and Elysium’s 1%er parable, Chappie deals with a wider variety of themes and issues, all thrown together to create a muddled but interesting film.
In the near future, the streets of Johannesburg are patrolled by hundreds of police droids. One of these droids is injured in battle and then given an upgrade by his maker (Dev Patel) and develops sentience and the ability to learn. The droid is soon stolen by local gangsters (South African rap duo, Die Antwoord, Ninja and Yolandi) who believe he is the key to pulling off a heist to pay off a local ganglord they’re in debt to. However, a childlike robot is not what they had planned on, and they must teach the droid, dubbed Chappie (as in Happy Chappie), in the ways of life if they are to be successful.
If it sounds crowded…well, it is. And that’s even before you factor in Hugh Jackman’s AI hating former military man, bent on getting his bigger bulkier human controlled MOOSE robot on the streets instead of the AI ones.
But the real meat of the plot involves Chappie’s evolution from childlike robot to hardcore gangster, and everything in between. As Yolandi takes on the mother role and sees Chappie as her child, Ninja sees him only as a means to an end, and both of them try to pull Chappie in different ways. Themes of nature versus nurture, different styles of (extreme) parenting, mortality, morality, trust and the harsh reality of life are all present and correct, though some themes are more prominent and more successful than others. Chappie’s relationship with Yolandi especially is truly touching yet serves to highlight the areas of the film that are lacking.
Aside from Chappie (voiced and mo-capped by Shalrto Copley), who is by far the most well rounded character, tracing an arc that’s both believable and interesting to follow and who carries the film through its sillier moments, the rest of the established cast get sidelined in minimal or pointless roles. Dev Patel is a function of the plot more than anything, Hugh Jackman is lumbered with a bad guy role from an 80’s movie (complete with haircut), and Sigourney Weaver is wasted, sat behind a desk for all of her scenes. The film tries to deal with a lot of themes and only one or two are given enough time to breathe; Jackman’s desire to get the police droids shut down and his MOOSE approved is basically only in the movie to eventually be unleashed in the final set piece. The ganglord that Ninja and Yolandi need to pay off is likewise forgotten until the third act.
Blomkamp still knows his way around an action scene however, yet one wishes he would have a more original idea for a new film, as come the final act Chappie hits a lot of the same beats as District 9. It’s reductive to say it’s Robocop meets Short Circuit, but that’s exactly what it is with state of the art CG, stealing ideas wholesale from both of those films (the MOOSE is ED209 in all but name) to create an odd hodgepodge of tones that has lots of ambition but more often than not feels like something you’ve seen before.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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