In the near future, crime is patrolled by a mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
The third film from Neill Blomkamp features many of the same themes established in ‘District 9’ and ‘Elysium’, with a portrayal of a gritty, dystopian future the setting to develop some big ideas. Similar to ‘Elysium’, the film has a great premise and several great ideas, but Blomkamp struggles to clarify what he wants his story to be about, with the overall product feeling somewhat disjointed. Despite this, there’s a hell of a lot to like here and I found ‘Chappie’ overall to be an interesting, yet flawed piece of science fiction that makes up for its shortcomings with a lot of heart and warmth.
The film begins with a mockumentary style format (similar to the opening of ‘District 9’), which establishes us in Johannesburg once again, in a future where a robot police force is now responsible for dealing with crime. The robots were created by a weapons manufacturer called Tetravaal, and have been seen as a wild success up to this point. So far so ‘Robocop‘. The early stabs at satire are largely abandoned, with the narrative homing in on the robot’s designer, Deon (Dev Patel), his jealous colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman) and a group of gangsters (played by members of the South African rap collective ‘Die Antwoord’).
Deon has been developing Artificial Intelligence software to install on one of the robots, and when his request to test the software out is turned down by his boss (Sigourney Weaver), he takes matters into his own hands. Vincent’s funding has been cut due to the success of Deon’s robots, with his ire growing more and more everyday as he seeks a way to get his model (the MOOSE) to get the upper hand. The group of gangsters have just seen a heist go wrong after being foiled by the robot police force, which leads their boss to demand they repay their debt within 7 days. The aims of these individuals collide when Deon is kidnapped by the gangsters and forced to reprogram one of his robots to assist them with a heist. Using the AI software, ‘Chappie’ (Sharlto Copley) is born, initially childlike but with the capacity to learn much faster than a human being could.
The narrative is pretty ragged and the performances scattershot, but there’s enough invention and drive here to ensure the film is always entertaining. Dev Patel is very good as Deon, bringing a subtle warmth to his role as an alternative, kinder Frankenstein, whilst Die Antwoord bring an unusual quality as the colourful gangsters that bring Chappie under their wing. Hugh Jackman’s angry performance feels a bit one note and lacking in the nuanced intensity he brought to say ‘Prisoners’. With that being said, this is perhaps the point. ‘Chappie’ is larger than life, and the eccentric performances help to colour the landscape Blomkamp has created. The real joy comes from the titular character himself though, who I found to be a well designed and fantastic creation. His growth brings a lot of humour as he is caught between an education from Deon and the less well intentioned gangsters, but the real strength in ‘Chappie’ comes from the character’s heart, and the way this is developed as Chappie starts to become more self aware about his own situation and mortality. It’s in these moments where ‘Chappie’ really excels, with the action sequences and Vincent’s actions working as an interesting sideshow.
Perhaps a by product of the stories shaggy nature, the ending doesn’t feel organic with the particular direction the story goes down feeling slightly underdeveloped to warrant the conclusion. I did get the impression that perhaps the ending had been written before the full story was fleshed out, and it would be interesting to find out if this had been the case. ‘Chappie‘ is far from perfect and it’s another piece of filmmaking from director Neill Blomkamp that lacks the clarity of direction of his original and finest film to date, ‘District 9’. With that being said, ‘Chappie’ has a lot to love about it, from the visual style to the eclectic soundtrack, to the heart of the central character which continues to beat even when all else falls down around it. If you’re a fan of Blomkamp’s previous work, ‘Chappie‘ is well worth checking out and I liked it a lot.
Directed By: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman