Neill Blomkamp exploded onto the scene with the Oscar nominated District 9 but since then, he hasn’t quite matched that first hit. Chappie is a step up from his sophomore effort, Elysium, but the ideas feel more recycled than fresh and the plot and characters don’t fully gel.
Set in the near future, the corporation Tetravaal has manufactured a robotic police force for Johannesburg, South Africa and they are seemingly a massive success, lowering the crime rate and keeping human police out of the line of fire. The main programmer of the AI however, Dean Wilson (Dev Patel), wants to create a fully sentient robot and tries to test his AI program on a robot being sent for demolition, Scout 22, and, while it seemingly works, 22 and Deon are both kidnapped by Ninja, Yolandi and America (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a trio of thugs who need to pull of a huge heist in order to pay off a sadistic gangster named Hippo. 22, now named Chappie, is then caught between the nurturing influence of Deon and, suprisingly, Yolandi, and Ninja, who wants to turn Chappie into a weapon for their crimes. As if that wasn’t jam packed already for a plot, there’s also Hugh Jackman as a bitter soldier turned engineer who is trying to get his very ED-209esque robot project, the Moose, off the ground and replace the Scouts. The plot is full of holes if you stop and think about it, especially the sort of Deus Ex Machina that resolves the main plot, although it’s not as bad as Elysium’s literal win button. There’s also a strange lack of urgency on the part of Deon, who has created one of the greatest achievements in human history but leaves it in the hands of Die Antwoord for most of the movie. A lot of the ideas and potential social commentary, along with the Joburg setting, feel recycled from both of Blomkamp’s previous films and lack the punch of when we first saw them in District 9.
Speaking of Die Antwoord, it’s never not bizarre having them be in 90% of the film and, at times, it feels like a long promotional video, as the constantly listen to their own music in their hideout and wear their own, branded, clothes despite the fact that they are not a rap group in the universe of Chappie. There are some suprisingly sweet moments between Yolandi and Chappie, as Yolandi takes it upon herself to be Chappie’s adopted mother and helps encourage his creative side with Deon, as long as Ninja is not around. Ninja is kind of just a crazy asshole for the entire movie until the movie decides he needs to suddenly become heroic toward the climax. Hugh Jackman is also kind of a bizarre asshole in Chappie as well, constantly wearing a gun despite working in an office and following through with a plan that will potentially kill hundreds just to get his stupid robot into production. It’s not even clear how he was able to design a robot like the Moose when he feels more like a rugby hooligan. The best part of the movie is it’s title character as Sharlto Copley delivers a sweet, funny performance as Chappie, although he’s not quite as instantly lovable as recent robots like Baymax or even classics like The Iron Giant. His intelligence seems to waffle between scenes though, as sometimes he’s extremely child like and innocent and the next he’s designing a sophisticated way to transfer consciousness. Sigourney Weaver is also in the movie as the CEO of Tetravaal but she is completely wasted and doesn’t have much to do besides being a stereotypical angry boss.
There’s not a lot of action in Chappie but the two big action sequences in the beginning in the end are well done and that’s one of the areas that Blomkamp usually excels. There’s a fantastic opening shootout that shows off what the Scouts can do against Hippo and Ninja’s deal gone bad and the end battle against the Moose has some cool moments as Chappie must come to the aid of his adopted family.
Chappie doesn’t reach the heights set by District 9 but I would probably place it second ahead of Elysium in Blomkamp’s catalog. It feels like he’s rehashing ideas a bit but hopefully since his next film is an already established franchise, Alien, he’ll be able to focus more on the visuals and plot.