Film Review: Chappie

Image © Columbia Pictures 

Image © Columbia Pictures 

Chappie is one of those films you cannot go into with expectations.  Not only will it fail to live up to them, it will also confuse them until you're not even sure what your expectations even were.  It's one of those movies where I have no idea if I like it or dislike it.  In fact I can't even confidently say you should see it or avoid it.

Here's what I can say with confidence: It is not what I expected it to be.

Watching the trailers, Chappie looks like a film where a brilliant programmer/scientist/geek creates artificial intelligence using what looks like a beat-up old police robot.  Then the robot is taught by two South African rappers on how to become a conscious being.  Word gets out and the powers-that-be seek to destroy it.

Well, that's not really the film at all.  Dev Patel is Deon Wilson, a brilliant programmer who actually designed the police robots but thinks he can do so much more.  Despite being positive that he can create a fully functional AI, his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) denies him the time or funding as she's perfectly happy providing Johannesburg's police department with the current models.

Meanwhile coworker Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is pissed because (apparently?) his Christian upbringing leads him to mistrust anything that isn't directly controlled by man and doubly pissed because his in-no-way-suffering-from-penis-envy giant robot is constantly having its funding cut.  You see, his machine is not only huge and expensive but it's also remotely controlled by a human being.  Why would any police or military force want that when the current robots reduce the number of people on payroll? 

Okay, but where the hell do Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja of Die Antwoord fame fit in?  Well, there's criminals who owe a big debt and decide that the only way they'll get away with a big robbery is to deactivate all the robot cops.  After about 30 seconds of Googling they decide to kidnap Deon and force him to use his (nonexistent) 'giant remote control' to shut them all off. 

It's all a very strange set of circumstances that can only work in movies but unfortunately doesn't quite work in this one.  Even when all the wheels are set into motion it's impossible to ignore the fact that director Neill Blomkamp has yet to learn how to stop being so heavy-handed with his morality tales.

In District 9 we explored racism via humans vs. aliens, and Elysium was a rich vs. poor tale.  Chappie falls somewhere in between.  Here we're shown the worst case of humanity being unwilling and unable to embrace the idea of other forms of consciousness.  Add in theories concerning consciousness and the film begins to collapse under its own weight.

Fortunately there are still a few bright spots.  Sharlto Copley is fantastic as Chappie, and his motion-capture gives Andy Serkis a run for his money.  Hugh Jackman is actually really good as a villain and it's fun to see him using his size and stature to be imposing in a bad way. 

Meanwhile, there's Yo-landi and Ninja.  While I'm a fan of their music and was excited to see them on the big screen it is pretty obvious that they have very little prior acting experience.  While there are some nice moments from the two it feels like they're trying too hard.  Plus their music is everywhere in the film so sometimes it felt like I was watching a long-form music video. 

Chappie really is one of those movies that I can't quite recommend but I still don't think it's unworthy.  If you're a fan of the director then you'll at least enjoy enough of it to justify at minimum a rental, but if you didn't care for District 9 or just don't like being smacked in the face with a not-so-subtle morality tale I doubt there's anything here for you.