In the near future, the police force of Johannesburg is supplemented by Scouts – a slew of obedient, combat-ready robots engineered by Deon (Dev Patel), the pending inventor of the AI to be installed in Chappie, a stolen out of commission Scout.
Starring Die Antwoord as Die Antwoord and Dev Patel as questionably incompetent Dev Patel, CHAPPIE is a disappointing mix of weirdly meta references, hilariously poor character writing, and gangster montages of an AI robot being an asshole.
The plot progression itself is odd, resulting in scenes that come off as slightly disjointed. Emphasis is placed on Die Antwoord and as a result much more potentially interesting characters and relationships that seem to hold more importance to the plot are relegated to the back.
This is a film where almost none of the actions of its characters seem to be motivated by common logic and where none of the characters seem to operate in a way that suggests that they belong anywhere but in a half-baked fictional world.
Perhaps the most poorly conceived character of all is Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore – the film’s overtly antagonistic Australian rival engineer, complete with a mullet and weird religious scruples that hang awkwardly unaddressed. This is a character who, at one point, holds a gun to Deon’s head in the middle of the office floor as a “prank”, and at another, literally throws a rugby ball up and down as he commits his villainous acts of villainy.
Then there is Die Antwoord, who, it should be noted, are not meant to be Die Antwoord, but two gangsters of coincidentally the same names, with the same personas, wearing Die Antwoord shirts with Die Antwoord music pumping through their technicolour base. However the weird meta real-life connections that bear no relevance to the core of the film are not necessarily a mishap on Blomkamp’s behalf – odd, but not necessarily detracting. The primary fault in these characters lies in their amplified importance in a plot where their character threads were by far the least interesting to follow.
In a film of subpar performances – more the fault of the characters themselves than the actors – Sharlto Copley as Chappie is the saving grace of the film. Copley nails the progression from infanthood to maturity, the mannerisms and body language of Chappie applaudingly well executed. Chappie is by far the most relatable character of the film, and the only one you walk away caring about – troubling when you realise he is the only non-human character of the film.
The most disappointing element of the film however is its lost potential. Interesting concepts of what constitutes consciousness and the paradigm of the human soul are barely touched upon and mettled together with no clear direction. There is a particularly well executed scene where Chappie comes across a rerun of He-man in the midst of his exposure to the South African ghetto which hints at the promise of an interesting approach to nature versus nurture, however this is sidelined in favour of montages of Chappie living the thug life.
Not all is lost with CHAPPIE though. As usual, Blomkamp is on point with his visuals. Though their character’s were less than desirable, the aesthetic design of Yolandi and Ninja are excellent. Fluro pink machine guns and artistically muralled hangouts work strangely well within the film and are refreshingly different in what can sometimes be a bland, predictable cinematic landscape when it comes to portrayals of the criminal world. The CGI of Chappie is some of the best, particularly when taking into account Blomkamp’s relatively low budget of $49 million. There is no cause for the viewer to question at any point the physical presence of an actual robot on screen.
At its best, CHAPPIE is a mediocre film with poorly executed parts. But Blomkamp is an excellent technical director – he is not quite Shyamalan yet. DISTRICT 9 has shown Blomkamp can make a good film. Fix the characters, adjust the focus of the film, and CHAPPIE actually has something interesting to say.