Film Review: ‘Chappie’

'Chappie' Review: Neill Blomkamp's Rickety Robot

Neill Blomkamp reconfigures the dystopian elements of his earlier sci-fiers in this clunky, enervating robot actioner.

Intelligence, artificial or otherwise, is one of the major casualties of “Chappie,” a robot-themed action movie that winds up feeling as clunky and confused as the childlike droid with which it shares its name. Mashing together various elements from director Neill Blomkamp’s earlier sci-fi pictures (including another prominent role for Sharlto Copley), this South African spin on “Short Circuit” displays the same handheld immediacy and scene-setting verve as its predecessors, but all in service of a chaotically plotted story and a central character so frankly unappealing he almost makes Jar Jar Binks seem like tolerable company by comparison. Absent “District 9’s” subtle apartheid allegory or “Elysium’s” health-care brief, but offering a bizarre performance showcase for the rap-rave group Die Antwoord, Blomkamp’s third feature exhausts its meager ideas and the viewer well before the end of its two-hour running time. Curiosity will beckon for a few, but this rickety vehicle isn’t the one to reverse Sony’s recent fortunes.

Starting with his ingenious, justly celebrated debut, “District 9” (2009), Blomkamp has employed the trappings of science fiction to cast a darkly satirical eye on our troubled species, albeit to steadily diminishing returns: Like 2013’s ambitious, disappointing “Elysium,” this lower-budget, smaller-scaled thriller imagines a society on the brink of collapse, only to resolve its intriguing scenario with a startling lack of follow-through or finesse. Of course, Blomkamp’s previous pictures aren’t the only ones to which “Chappie” genially tips its hat: With its tale of crime-fighting sentinels, one of which is reborn as a sort of silicon-souled Pinocchio, the film effectively connects the narrative circuitry of “A.I.” to that of the “RoboCop” franchise. Genre completists may be reminded of still more recent dramas — from “Her” and “Transcendence” to “Automata” and “Ex Machina” — that have touched on such heady topics as robot sentience, transferred consciousness, and the always-tricky matter of human-bot relations.

Co-writing with his wife, Terri Tatchell (with whom he also collaborated on “District 9”), Blomkamp once again employs mock news footage to establish his premise in tense, run-and-gun fashion. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, Johannesburg is being policed by an army of highly functional, human-sized droids — the brainchild of Deon (Dev Patel), lead designer at a robotics firm called Tetra Vaal. Intimidating but not invincible, these heavily armed soldiers have effectively neutralized the city’s thugs and drug dealers, as we see in an explosive early shootout involving two bottom-feeding gangsters, Ninja and Yo-Landi (played by Die Antoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser).

Although he’s proud of his rabbit-eared, battery-operated automatons, Deon yearns to contribute something more meaningful to the world — namely, to develop an android that doesn’t just kill, but can read books, appreciate art, and think and talk for itself. Defying the orders of Tetra Vaal’s bottom-line-minded CEO, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), and arousing the suspicion of a jealous corporate rival, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), Deon steals the remains of Scout 22, a droid felled in the line of duty, to test his latest experiment in synthetic consciousness. Unfortunately, he’s then kidnapped by Ninja, Yo-Landi and their accomplice Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who are foolishly convinced that Deon can stop the “robot pigs” with the press of a button. When they realize he has a droid in his possession, they order him to revive it so they can make their own killing machine — and although Deon has no intention of helping them, his own scientific curiosity soon gets the better of him.

In short order, Scout 22’s memory is erased, his damaged parts are repaired, and he’s reborn as Chappie (voiced by Copley), the name given to him by Yo-Landi (after South Africa’s most famous brand of bubblegum), who turns out to have quite a maternal side. Like a besotted mother and father, she and Deon hope to give their frightened, uncomprehending droid a proper upbringing — teaching him English, encouraging him in his artistic pursuits, and letting him know that he can do anything he puts his metallic mind to. But Ninja and Amerika are determined to turn Chappie into a ruthless robo-killer, and so they fill his head with hip-hop slang, teach him to fire a gun, outfit him in tacky gold necklaces and (in one particularly cruel display of tough love) drop him off in one of the sketchier parts of Joburg, where he’s assaulted by hooligans who mistake him for a cop. By treating Chappie as a highly impressionable blank slate — a Candide for the computer age — the movie comes awfully close to playing like a very special dystopian episode of “Extreme Guide to Parenting.”

Just as the concept for “District 9” originated in the 2006 short “Alive in Joburg,” so “Chappie” suggests an extension of images and ideas from three other byte-sized Blomkamp pics: “Tetra Vaal” (2004), “Tempbot” (2006) and especially “Adicolor Yellow” (2006), about an android programmed with enough intelligence and learning ability to dwell among humans permanently. At the script’s core is the philosophical quandary of whether Chappie can develop a mind and conscience of his own, defy the gangsters’ negative influence, and keep his promise to Deon that he won’t hurt anyone (a sort of loose reworking of Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”). Alas, it’s hard to glean much profundity or poignancy in the battle for Chappie’s soul, given how little of it he evinces onscreen; as written and performed, he comes off as such a tiresome, hyper-aggressive chatterbox that you keep hoping someone will flip his off switch.

Granted, not every artificial intelligence needs to be as compelling as HAL 9000 or as captivating as WALL-E. But those two creations were nothing if not a demonstration of how expressive silence can be, while showing the level of artistry required to imbue a hunk of metal with genuinely lifelike attributes. For better and for worse, Blomkamp and his collaborators (including the visual-effects team of Image Engine and the physical-effects team of Weta Workshop) have given us a frenetic robot protagonist who, when he’s not throwing knives or smashing cars, insists on questioning those around him at every turn, all while bearing horrified witness to the general awfulness of humanity. Before long, Chappie isn’t just asking “What is the Internet?” but “Why do you humans do this?!” — an excellent query, to be sure, but by that point you may feel too enervated to give it the weight it deserves.

There may be an intriguing subtext to the fact that Copley, after so brilliantly morphing into a man-mutant hybrid in “District 9,” has seemed less and less human in each of Blomkamp’s subsequent features — first as a cardboard villain in “Elysium,” and now as a robot’s voice. The filmmaker has long evinced a fascination with the body’s ability to push against and ultimately transcend its physical limits, and by the end, “Chappie” seems to look ahead to a possible next phase of human existence, albeit one that feels at once implausibly convenient and dramatically tacked-on. Suffice to say that things seems to conclude precisely at the point where they might have started to get interesting.

By that point, “Chappie” has long since settled into the groove of a thoroughly competent if pro forma action movie, nimbly shot on location by d.p. Trent Opaloch, coherently assembled by editors Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt, and neatly visualized by production designer Jules Cook as a world of nondescript offices, vast warehouses and one stylish gangster hideaway. Machine guns are fired and bombs are detonated, most of them by Jackman’s one-note bad guy, whose own competing brand of weapon technology is built on the notion that robots must always remain subservient to humans. In a smarter, more nuanced film, Moore might have come across as a dissenting voice of reason rather than a raving psychopath (who, just in case the mullet wasn’t enough of a giveaway, is a religious nut to boot).

The proceedings feel awfully short on human engagement overall; Patel is just OK as the sympathetic Dr. Frankenstein figure, and Weaver, though always a welcome presence, is basically on hand to confer her sci-fi seal of approval (and perhaps remind audiences that Blomkamp has an “Alien” movie coming up next). By far the most curious casting choice is that of South African hip-hop artists Ninja and Visser, who have always playfully blurred the line between their onstage and offstage personae. Here, projecting a (somewhat) exaggerated version of their already outlandish identities, they seem more or less of a piece with the scattershot proceedings, and their performances do improve after their shouty, gun-waving histrionics early on. Lending the picture an occasional burst of anarchic energy are Die Antwoord’s numerous contributions to the soundtrack, of which the infernally catchy “Enter the Ninja” is merely the most recognizable.

Film Review: 'Chappie'

Reviewed at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, Calif., March 3, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and MRC presentation in association with LStar Capital of a Kinberg Genre production. Produced by Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg. Executive producer, Ben Waisbren. Co-producers, Victoria Burkhart, James Bitonti.

Crew

Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Screenplay, Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Trent Opaloch; editors, Julian Clarke, Mark Goldblatt; music, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jules Cook; supervising art director, Emelia Weavind; art directors, Bobby Cardoso, Werner Snyman; set decorator, Daniel Birt; costume designer; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Saville; supervising sound editor, Craig Berkey; sound designers, Dave Whitehead, Steven Boeddeker; re-recording mixers, Steven Boeddeker, Vince Renaud, Christopher Scarabosio; special effects supervisor, Max Poolman; visual effects producers, Jenny Fulle, Dione Wood, Geoff Anderson; character animation and visual effects, Image Engine; visual effects, the Embassy; props, weapons, costumes and special makeup, Weta Workshop; stunt coordinators, Grant Hulley, Kerry Gregg; line producer, Trishia Downie; assistant director, James Bitonti.

With

Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman.

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  1. Killy says:

    I just finished watching Chappie and it was total crap. I love Die Antwoord, but their music seemed out of place and I found the entire movie more annoying than anything else. Too much plugging Die Antwoord and just a poorly done film.

  2. Chappie = RoboCop + 1970s Street Gang “C” Movie

  3. Syed Shazeb says:

    oh man. Chappie was freaking amazing. Thoroughly enjoyed the movie. great acting and was emotional too

  4. I enjoyed the directors previous films, however I didn’t like this one much. While the technology aspects were quite nice, I found the whole thing a bit of a RoboCop ripoff. Even up to the ED-209 clone which they called the ‘MOOSE’. The punk rocker criminals with a heart aspect was completely dumb to me and I lost it when Chappie started getting all gangsta, imitating his new street-dwelling owners. Tack on that unbearable South African accent they gave him and I barely made it to the end of this movie. The ending seemed a bit thrown together to me and frankly, I was just glad it was over with.

    I did find some enjoyable moments and found the part very sad when he was left to fend for himself in order to ‘see the real world’. I really wanted to like this movie but there were too many things that irritated me while watching it to truly enjoy it.

    Sorry I’m not a cognitive scientist and I’ve never worked on AI, but I’ve watched a lot of movies and I do love robots. Just not Chappie.

  5. Cog Sci guy says:

    As a cognitive scientist who has worked in artificial intelligence research and development for years, I’m amazed the reviewer could even spell “robot” let alone have the faintest idea how any kind of developmental artificial intelligence patterned after human learning and development works. I’ve seen a LOT of AI movies in my day, and not many were noteworthy. “CHAPPiE” does something few other AI films have done: it gets most of the science of developmental robotics almost right, and I can count the movies that have done that on the fingers of one hand. Considerable cinematic license had to be taken (CHAPPiE learned too much, too quickly, but if that were done realistically the movie would have been endless and very boring), but that’s no crime. Get the outline of the science right, as in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Contact,” and the outcome may be brilliant.

    “CHAPPiE” isn’t a brilliant film and it does have a few technical errors in it (like the silly robot police force that is supposed to be incapable of learning what CHAPPiE can; we currently have speech recognition systems that are smarter than that). It’s a nice story told quite adequately by people who aren’t complete morons. Of course it resembles other science fiction robot films and uses some familiar AI tropes. AI as one of the cognitive sciences is a set of fruitful research domains. AI robot movies are not, although they can be entertaining.

    Enjoy the movie for what it is: cheap fun. Send the dumb robot police to arrest the reviewers and make them watch “Lucy” (a film that looked to me like an 8th grade school project, with parents “helping”) 100 times without a break.

  6. Getting really quite tired of movie critics who either (1) have not done their socio-economic/political homework to thoroughly contextualize a film, and/or (2) simply are not astute enough for nuances. Chappie was brilliant, with complex underlying existential and political questions. And, equally as important, both the masculine and feminine archetypes were presented — something that Hollywood rarely cares about.

  7. Jaoo says:

    Why didn’t anybody compared this to Robocop 1? It’s so much the same. I thought it was closer to Robocop than Short-Circuit. I pretty much agree with Andrew Jonsson. This movie was really deep. There was also some Marxism(thug education vs engineer education) in that movie.

  8. Andrew Jonsson says:

    I feel like you completely missed the mark on your review. You gave kudos to a Wall-E, which was dumbed down for a child audience, and you somehow missed all of the subtly and intricacies of Chappie. Wall-E hits you with a sledgehammer do deliver its message, Chappie requires you to look deeper. You can’t skim the surface on this one like a Pixar movie which can be summarized in two to three sentences.

    It is a movie about South African society and culture, not a fantasy world where humans are fat on a cruise ship, (Wow sooo deep!). Die Antwoord is about suffering, mental illness, and societal degeneration. They are about being famous in the face of criticism. They are an embodiment of their culture. It was an incredible realization to include them into this movie, which delves into societal impact, and upbringing.

    Listen to their music, and truly understand their message. At the end of one of their tracks, he speaks directly to his critics, “Who thought I was a loser, who thought I was nobody, who thought I was a f*cking psycho…well, look at me now”.

    This is Chappie. He was a loser. He was scrap metal. He was able to code human consciousness with a handful of PS4s, being raised by street thugs. He saved his creator, and saved his mommy. It isn’t an action movie as hollow as metal robots fighting like Transformers. If you have suffered in life, dealt with or know those who have suffered as losers and nobodies… this movie is so much more. I didn’t even dive into the humanity aspect, where the human controlled robot was more harm than the robots themselves. Good vs Evil, and the complexity therein. This was a deep movie. Sorry you didn’t see the same movie that I did!

  9. Peggy says:

    District 9 was a racist piece of shit. This director has now proven he does not deserve to get his hands on the Alien franchise. Hollywood is creatively broken. Everyone is running to TV which may only serve to help empty Hollywood of all the crappy derivative filmmakers and leave the truly talented ones left to make films. But only if they open it up to more women and minorities. Neil Blomkamp is proof that white males have destroyed Hollywood.

  10. Tim Lammers says:

    The guy does a sign of the cross a half-dozen times during the film and that makes him a religious nut?

  11. Paully says:

    This director is using up his goodwill rather fast don’t you think? I will wait for the video.

  12. LOL says:

    At least it’s an original movie that is not a sequel or spin-off.

  13. Y’think Blomkamp watches anime? From the plot description here, I’d say he watches a LOT of it!

  14. So this is a “Short Circuit” reboot?

  15. irwinator1992 says:

    I guess I’ll save my money and see the new Divergent film instead. And after that, it’s the new Avengers for me.

  16. I was never impressed by the trailers and after being burned by watching ELYSIUM, I had low expectations. The mostly negative reviews back up my feelings. I’m sure the film will be dubbed CRAPPIE – if it hasn’t been already. I fear for the future of the ALIEN franchise in Neil’s hands.

    • Andrew Jonsson says:

      You have to see the movie for itself. It isn’t an action movie. There were times where I actually was choking back tears. Its a movie that hurts. Its a movie that you love. It is a powerful movie. Don’t let the negative reviews dissuade you. It truly is great. Especially if you understand Die Antwoord.

    • manny says:

      ‘CRAPPIE’ hahahhaha, you made cry. Though I agree, there are better directors than him that could helm the franchise.

  17. brad says:

    The trailer alone was painful, 120 minutes of that, no thanks.

  18. GeorgeValentin says:

    Hugh Jackman does wear tan trousers in this movie, so, the film will be a good one.

  19. John Doe says:

    “Absent “District 9’s” subtle apartheid allegory”

    This is a joke, right?

  20. Anna Q says:

    Much like the Wachowski`s, this guy was lauded as the next great talent far too prematurely.

  21. Inv says:

    Hahaha.

    Getting worried yet?

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