Twitter Plot Summary: A defective robot police droid is given consciousness, but is then raised by criminals.
Neill Blomkamp had a slight misfire with Elysium, his follow-up to the much lauded District 9. Returning to his home turf of Johannesburg seemed like a good idea, bringing things back to basics and highlighting the divide between people who have opportunities to progress in their life and those who do not. If there’s one way to describe Neill Blomkamp’s films, it’s that he is a man who is always keen to explore ideas in a sci-fi setting.
To sum up Chappie, you could easily get away with saying it’s the story of a sentient robot that goes mano a mano with Hugh Jackman’s mullet. There’s much more to it than that of course, but as a tagline it does the job rather nicely. There’s elements of both of Blomkamp’s previous films here, namely the science fiction robot storyline and the Johannesburg setting. But there are also elements plucked from other franchises. From the trailer and a frankly excellent 10 seconds of the final movie is the intro sequence to the 1980s He-Man cartoon, but more pronounced is the heavy overtone of Robocop’s Detroit, somewhere that at least once had the same dystopian feeling as Johannesburg appears to have now.
And amongst those loving close-ups of Mr Jackman’s party hard hairstyle we get a story set five minutes in the future where human police officers have been replaced with robots, resulting in a gradual decrease in crime in the area. Not that you’d guess this from the motley crew of criminals we are introduced to, there are that many of them, and so blatantly out in the open, that it makes you wonder if the switch to a robot police force has really been effective. There’s some fun use of a MacGuffin that allows the company’s software to be updated on their droids, but this is made all the more amusing thanks to some laughably bad security. For a weapons company they sure do need some help in securing their assets.
Deon (Dev Patel), Chappie’s creator, manages to infuse the youthful Chappie with the basics of a moral code, a primitive version of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. On the downside is that he is looked after, primarily, by rappers Die Antwoord, Ninja and Yo-Landi, who play themselves. They are, sadly, the weakest aspect of the entire film but that’s not down to their performances alone – they happen to be acceptable if not spectacular in that respect. Having given it a try, their music isn’t too bad. I know, I surprise even myself by saying that.
And what can be said about this film without referring to Sharlto Copley’s performance as Chappie? Given the high quality of the CGI, it can be sometimes hard to believe that Copley is live on set and acting everything out, but he’s there in every frame, bringing life and youthful innocence to Chappie’s every move and action. Jackman is a great antagonist as the mulleted rival to Dev Patel, a clear alpha-male personality subtly subverted by his choice of hairstyle. Slightly less satisfactory is Sigourney Weaver’s appearance as the owner of the weapons company, Tetravaal, where Chappie was designed and created. Her role amounts to an extended cameo, and other than making a moderately amusing escape from her office late in the story, does nothing but bring her usual level of excellence to what amounts to a rather small role.
Despite his promise as a director, Chappie is another slight misfire from Blomkamp. Tonally it shifts from Short Circuit levels of comedy to darker, Robocop-esque territory. The shift is so varied that the story never quite gels together, and no amount of great performances (and some average ones) or impressive CGI is going to help overcome that.