Chappie is a nugget of an idea, a poorly developed “RoboCop meets Short Circuit” at best, with a story and characters so dumbed down it’s almost amazing they were able to piece it together and call it a movie. It’s supremely lacking in motivation or reason to exist, logic of any kind, and featuring a cast of characters I hesitate to even call “one note”. To give these characters credit for anything beyond their ability to fill space on a screen would be to compare the Berlin Philharmonic to a two-year-old banging on a Playskool xylophone, and it’s about as irritating as the latter for the bulk of its two hour duration.
There is nothing redeeming about any one of the human characters and yet I can’t tell if writer/director Neill Blomkamp (co-writing with Terri Tatchell) expects us to feel anything for any of them. I’m sure, on some level, he expects the audience to recognize the impressionable force grown ups have on the younger generation, but does introducing a sentient robot to a pair of ingrates such as those played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser actually accomplish anything? Especially when the one, so-called “good guy” isn’t much better. Because if Dev Patel‘s Deon is representative of what’s “good” about humanity we may as well just burn it all to the ground.
Set in the near future, the crime-riddled city of Johannesburg has taken to using robot drones as part of their police force. Working for the robotics company Tetravaal, Deon (Patel) is given most of the credit for the robot drones he designed, but he isn’t quite satisfied. Deon wants to give his robots a conscience and he’s been working for two-and-a-half years to do it, and guess what, a montage of Red Bulls and button mashing results in just that… the conscience DAT file, which, if it works, will result in the world’s first sentient robots. Now there’s a billion dollar idea, Deon’s boss is going to be on the ground kissing his feet for this. Right? Wrong!
Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) practically laughs Deon out of her office. “Ha, ha, ha! We already have the working drones. Why would you want to go and make them think? Get outta here with your crazy ideas kid.” So, long story short, Deon steals a robot due to be incinerated after an opening mission that saw him blasted with a rocket launcher (yeah, criminals in Johannesburg have some serious firepower), but before he can get this robot home, he’s kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi (yeah, they play themselves) and their sidekick, Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) or Amerika (yeah, with a “K”, what are you new?) as he’s most often referred.
Ninja and Yolandi have a plan for a heist to get a bunch of money, pay off a “gangsta” named Hippo (Brandon Auret) and then, retire somewhere or something. I’m not exactly sure they think more than a few seconds into the future.
They’ve kidnapped Deon because they want him to turn off the robots so they can perform their heist. I kid you not, this is the plot of the film. Yolandi actually says at one point, something along the lines of, “They must have a remote, like a television, and we can just turn them off.” To which Ninja says, “That’s brilliant!” Now I have to assume there is some sort of attempt at satire here, but showing me a couple of idiots acting like idiots isn’t saying much more than “Look at these idiots!”
However, once these yokels get their hands on the robot in Deon’s van the plan changes. Deon agrees to help, because he’s afraid to die, but says he has to put the coded conscience in the robot first. Ta da, Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley) is born!
Chappie acts like a newborn child. Chappie learns how to act like an idiot from the two idiot gangstas. Chappie says “Chappie”… a lot. Ninja, the more aggressive of the dim-witted duo, is now convinced Chappie can help him with his heist. Meanwhile, Chappie continues to say “Chappie” and is playing with a plastic chicken.
Enter into the story Hugh Jackman as soldier-turned-engineer Vincent Moore, who is butt hurt because his giant robot equipped with missiles, a Gatling gun and cluster bombs isn’t being used by the police in favor of Deon’s robots and you have a good bit of half-assed, manufactured tension. Why wouldn’t Tetravaal try and sell Vincent’s creation to the military where it would be more useful (unless you think missiles would be valuable in traffic stops) is a question I can’t answer. I also can’t answer what Vincent does all day other than sit in his cubicle glaring at Deon while playing with his rugby ball, but the truth of the matter is you’re not supposed to ask, you’re supposed to just look on with childlike wonder, not asking questions, not looking for answers.
There’s an irony to the idea this film has anything to do with humanity or even intelligence, artificial or otherwise, considering there is none on display here, even if you bend over so far as to suggest this is some kind of calculated (or even unintentional) satire. The plot is so full of issues and only interested in getting to the finale where a man’s body is torn in half, that it forgets we must actually be invested by the time we get there. Fact is, the characters are so unlikable and the plot so meaningless and redundant all I wanted was for it all to quickly come to an end.
Hans Zimmer‘s musical cues are about as blunt as everything else in the movie and it’s hilarious to watch Jackman creep around Tetravaal, looking over his shoulder at every turn. Seriously, for a robotics company this is the least secure company I have ever seen where the key to controlling the entire fleet of police robots can simply be “borrowed” for a couple days before anyone asks about it.
Blomkamp earned a bit of an over-appraisal with his debut feature District 9 (from myself included) and his follow-up Elysium was a massive step backwards, but it appears with Chappie he’s gone even further back. There is little more than a nugget of an idea to satisfy a short film here and he’s managed to create a bunch of scenes that add nothing to it and, in fact, his attempts at comedy (whether you’re laughing or not) actually diminish the effect of most of what’s taking place. Perhaps Blomkamp is best suited for the short films that put his name on the map, because he definitely isn’t showing any growth as a feature filmmaker with his last two efforts.