Spare parts don’t quite work together in ‘Chappie’
Movies, like any other art form, are interactive in one crucial way. What a viewer gets out of them depends on what she brings to the experience. One hundred people in the same auditorium at the same time will see one hundred different movies; it’s all about perspective. And part of what one brings to the movie house are expectations. If those aren’t met, you’ll be disappointed by what’s onscreen.
I had certain expectations for Chappie, the new sci-fi action movie from South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. Well beloved in cult circles for his scrappy, no-budget, came-out-of-nowhere futuristic thriller District 9, Blomkamp has a savvy sense of the genre, with a particular interest in human relations with others (aliens, robots) as allegory for our modern culture.
When I read the one-sentence description of Chappie—a droid in an indestructible robotic police force of the near future is reprogrammed to think and feel like a human—my expectations ran away with me. I thought it would be a commentary on out-of-control police violence and what might happen to an officer rewired to feel empathy. That’s an interesting idea for a movie, but it’s not the movie Blomkamp made.
Instead, Chappie is a sort of twisted caper comedy about an innocent inducted into a life of crime. There’s also a thriller plot that involves a lot of amped-up shootouts between criminals and robocops, criminals and each other, and robots and even bigger robots. Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell make a valiant attempt to attach these various random parts together into one big story, but a lot of it gets lost in all the mayhem.
Crime is so out of control in near-future JoBurg that a giant tech corporation, Tetra Vaal, designs and maintains a police force of robots called Scouts to keep the peace. Bullets bounce off them, and any other damage can be repaired—up to a point. When Scout No. 22 is finally headed to the scrap heap, program designer Deon (Dev Patel), grabs what’s left of the ’bot and a few spare parts and takes them home for a clandestine experiment—to imbue the artificial creature with consciousness. He succeeds, just before he and No. 22 are abducted by lowlifes.
Stalking Deon in search of a “remote” that will turn off the robots, petty criminals Ninja and Yolandi (real-life members of the punk band Die Antwoord) are thrilled to gain access to a Scout of their own. No. 22 has superhuman strength and an infinite capacity for learning, but he’s new to life and needs to be trained, like a child. Meanwhile, a rival Tetra Vaal engineer, Vincent (Hugh Jackman; you know he’s bad news by his horrible mullet), is out to sabotage the Scout line and replace it with his own gargantuan robotic enforcer, Moose.
The crooks nickname the childlike robot “Chappie,” and although Deon (as his “Creator”) forbids him to do crimes or use a gun, the others school him in other weapons, and the art of “looking cool.” These scenes are the least interesting part of the story, but they make up the bulk of the film. Blomkamp’s muse Sharlto Copley plays Chappie in motion-capture, and his sauntering, robotic-hipster moves are fun to watch, for awhile. But a sequence of supposedly comic carjackings quickly becomes tedious. And when Chappie is beaten up by thugs, or waylaid by Vincent’s nasty minions, it’s as grueling to watch as any other scene of child endangerment.
Other plot points don’t add up: not only do the crooks let Deon go free after they’ve stolen Chappie, and he’s seen their hideout, they let him keep coming back to visit. One night, all the Scouts go offline, and there’s rioting and looting throughout the city, but everything looks perfectly normal in the morning. And it never stops being weird that the “Mommy” and “Daddy” who steal Chappie become the protagonists. Their fate, along with Creator Deon, does perk up the very end of the movie, although by then it’s too late for us to really absorb it.
Sweet-natured Chappie could have been a compelling character in a much more complex movie, but, sadly, this isn’t it.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. A Columbia release. (R) 124 minutes. PHOTO: Neil Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell’s ‘Chappie’ is set in a crime-ridden society that employs a fleet of robot police.