Chappie Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman Columbia Pictures
Rated R | 120 Minutes
Release Date: March 6, 2015
In the near future, Johannesburg is patrolled by a mechanized police force. The creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), wants to take robotics to the next level by creating a sentient droid that can think and feel for itself.
Enter Scout Unit 22 (Sharlto Copley), a banged-up police droid scheduled for disposal. Against orders from his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), Deon creates a firmware update that gives the damaged unit consciousness, turning the hardened police droid into a newborn child.
Before Deon can nurture and enlighten his creation, a gang of criminals (Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo) steals the robot. In the hands of these wannabe gangsters, the droid – nicknamed Chappie – is molded and manipulated into becoming an “Indestructible Robot Gangster #1.”
Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium), Chappie is a weird, disjointed remix of two sequels: 1988’s Short Circuit 2 and 1990’s RoboCop 2. In RoboCop 2, Murphy is hijacked by a gang of criminals who dismantle and reprogram him with new directives, which compromise his ability to perform his duties. In Short Circuit 2, Johnny Five is suckered in by a gang of jewel thieves to rob a vault. In Chappie, you have a robotic police officer in a dystopian, crime-ridden city fighting corporate entities, tank-like robots, and street thugs. Reborn as an innocent, childlike machine with free will, Chappie is tricked into helping criminals steal millions from an armored car.
And like RoboCop, you have a fictitious mega-corporation designing robots for law enforcement and military use. Deon’s colleague, Vincent Moore (a mulleted Hugh Jackman), hopes to usurp Deon’s Scout program with his own defense project: a giant, bulky machine called “The Moose,” piloted by a human being. The Moose is a lot like OCP’s ED-209 Enforcement Droid, with a dash of the alien mechanized battle suit from District 9. As you can imagine, the film culminates with a battle between humanoid droid and tank-droid that, while visually impressive, is ultimately dissatisfying.
Here’s the problem with Chappie: it’s far too derivative to stand on its own. It’s impossible to watch even a minute of Blomkamp’s film without making comparisons to his previous films, as well as the decades of robot-centric science-fiction that came before it. The element that is unique – casting the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord as central characters Ninja and Yolandi – is original for all the wrong reasons.
Why would you hire two musicians with zero acting experience (and a reputation for being difficult to work with) to carry your film? Die Antwoord (Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser) play themselves in the film, and they get more screen time than Jackman, Weaver, and Patel combined. I spent the majority of Chappie‘s 120-minute runtime wishing praying for them to die so I could enjoy Copley’s lovely performance as the film’s titular robot.
There’s plenty to appreciate in this film, including incredible special effects by Weta Workshop, and quality performances by Jackman, Patel, Copley, and a severely underused Weaver. Hell, there’s even a wonderful little He-Man and the Masters of the Universe bit that made my ’80s kid heart flutter with glee. Despite some genuinely great moments and some big ideas, however, Chappie is nothing more than another misfire for Blomkamp, who has consistently underwhelmed us after blowing us away with 2009’s District 9.
I wanted to love Chappie because I love robots. I love the idea of something – a machine or a monster – displaying a level of humanity that most humans don’t. Some of my favorite films, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and King Kong, touch upon this very idea. It’s the reason films like WALL-E, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Planet of the Apes resonate with us so much – we love to see fantastical, impossible creations reflect our best (and worst) qualities.
I desperately wanted Chappie to resonate with me on that level, the way District 9 did. Unfortunately, valuable time is wasted on superfluous nonsense accented by annoying characters instead of fully exploring Copley’s sweet, sentient robot. Thankfully, human beings have free will (or at least the illusion of free will), and so we can choose to avoid this disappointing, tiresome film. I do feel a great amount of sympathy, however, for all the digital projectors forced to endure Chappie over… and over… and over again.