In 2016, police forces in Johannesburg, South Africa, have been almost entirely replaced by droids created by weapons and technology company Tetravaal. Engineer Deon (Dev Patel) goes against the wishes of CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) to create a sentient robot and is kidnapped in the process by criminals Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), who plan to use Deon’s creation for heists. After creating “Chappie” (Sharlto Copley), however, Deon, Ninja, and Yolandi have to teach him about the world. Chappie is also being pursued by Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), another Tetravaal employee who despises Deon and is bitter about the lack of success with his droid creation, The Moose.
Chappie is director and screenwriter Neill Blomkamp’s third major film, following Elysium and District 9. (Fun fact: Chappie is even based on a short film Blomkamp directed in 2004 called Tetra Vaal, which was a fictional documentary about robotic police forces.) I liked both of Blomkamp’s other films, so I assumed that Chappie would be good. Not to mention, the involvement of Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver, and Hugh Jackman seemed like a good sign that it would do well. But after seeing Chappie, I’m worried Blomkamp is in a creative rut.
Blomkamp is a good director with great vision. He’s able to take an interesting concept and pair it with unique special effects and an elaborate setting (often his home country of South Africa). But writing-wise, he’s veering dangerously toward “derivative”—and not just derivative of other movies, but of his previous work as well. In fact, it’s hard not to notice that Chappie shares a formula with District 9 and Elysium. All three films center on social issues in a dystopian future and a protagonist who’s “the other” archetype.
District 9 and Elysium weren’t perfect by any means, but both films had their strengths. I’d say District 9 had the better story whereas Elysium had the better action. Chappie falls somewhere in between, and not in the good way. It’s like Blomkamp couldn’t decide if he wanted to go for a quieter, more thought-provoking film about artificial intelligence, psychology, and learned behaviors or if he wanted to go for the big and bold firefight that highlighted the difference between a sentient robot and a human-controlled robot. Because of this, Chappie‘s tone and message is all over the place.
The tone is further muddied by the involvement of South African rap duo Die Antwoord (who use their stage names in the movie). I’m torn on them being in this movie. On the one hand, Yolandi put in one of the better performances in the movie, as she had the most interaction time with Chappie, and the contrast of her and Ninja’s “parenting” styles was interesting. On the other hand, they’re little more than a novelty in the film. It’s almost as if Blomkamp shoved his more experienced actors (and the plot) into the background in favor of what basically felt like a two-hour Die Antwoord music video, where Ninja and Yolandi engage in gang violence with a robot.
I don’t know. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it also wasn’t that great. It was both beautiful and a hot mess, as well as charming and heart-breakingly sad. And it somehow aimed too high with its story yet also didn’t aim high enough. The fact that I’m explaining it in near-Katy Perry lyrics should tell you everything you need to know about how sloppy this movie is. Better luck next time, Blomkamp.
Overall, Chappie wasn’t one of director and screenwriter Neill Blomkamp’s finest moments. Though sentient droid Chappie, the main character, is sympathetic and charming, the movie’s story and action never really take off. On top of that, Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver, and Hugh Jackman seem like their talent was wasted on a project that focused too much on the pageantry of rap duo Die Antwoord, who honestly didn’t serve much of a purpose beyond being the film’s novelty (that is, teaching Chappie to carjack and talk like a gangster). *sigh* Blomkamp needs a break from his own films.
For my radio review of Chappie on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 24:35 mark).