Chappie ‘is basically Robocop crossed with Short Circuit and that isn’t even being facetious’ says MacDara Conroy
Much like the titular robot himself, Chappie the movie is a bit more than the sum of its parts. Which is a good job too, as Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his supremely disappointing sci-fi morality fable Elysium, and before that the visually impressive but narratively hollow (and vaguely racist) debut District 9, kicks off with a wobbly set-up and a clunky first half that recalls those films’ remarkable visual flair –– and fundamental storytelling errors.
But let’s start with that set-up. The first few minutes comprise a montage of news footage that serves as an info-dump for the main background of the plot (robot police patrol a crime-ridden near-future Johannesburg… hmm, what other robot cop movie starts with a montage of news footage in a crime-ridden, near-future city?) and a handful of primary characters, namely robot company boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver in a glorified cameo), macho Aussie weapons guy Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman in a mullet) and geeky computer engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who’s been moonlighting on a project to create the perfect artificial intelligence. More on that later.
Meanwhile, we’ve got Ninja and Yolandi of the parody rap-rave duo Die Antwoord (remember them?) playing parallel universe versions of themselves as tooled-up gang-bangers planning one last score to pay off their unnecessarily subtitled fellow hoodlum Hippo (Brandon Auret, formerly of the seriously addictive South African soap opera Isidingo). Their hastily contrived scheme involves robbing a cash-in-transit van with the help of one of the city’s robot cop ‘scouts’ that they’ll control with its remote, because all robots are operated by remote control, yeah? That’s the level of plot contrivance we’re dealing with here.
Anyway, Die Antwoord spot Deon on the news and decide he’s the guy to nab to get their plan rolling, while unbeknownst to them he’s working on his own scheme to salvage a defective droid from his workplace and upload it with his home-coded AI software. Some shit goes down, and soon enough Ninja and Yolandi have landed themselves a robot with the mind of a child and the voice of Sharlto Copley.
It’s at this point that a quote from Deon later on – something along the lines of the essence of our being being more than the parts we’re composed of – makes sense as the film, as structurally messy as it is, starts to develop some heart. Superb CGI work by Weta aside, there’s something quite endearing about the innocent Chappie (a name inspired by a classic local brand of bubblegum) as he apes his new masters’ nasal white-trash Afrikaans accents and foul-mouthed faux-gangster attitude, with immensely stupid but funny results.
He’s Johnny Five gone bad, if you will. And yes, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to think. Chappie is basically Robocop crossed with Short Circuit and that isn’t even being facetious: Blomkamp makes no attempt to hide his references, to the point that the film teeters precariously between remix and ripoff. When Jackman, hamming it up with gusto as the hellish Vincent, comes barrelling into the final act with his own oversized death machine, animated with a hint of that disturbing stop-motion jerkiness, what else to think but ED–209 in camo fatigues?
And that underlines one of the problems with this picture which, while it comes together emotionally in its second half, is too easily disassembled after the credits roll.
The uber-violence of many scenes, aping the gleeful gore of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic, precludes any pretence to Short Circuit style family-friendly adventurism, so who exactly is it made for? People in their 30s who get the references to both? That’s a fairly narrow audience – narrower still if you only count those who get the South African cultural in-jokes – and leaves no room for the film to find any fan base of its own.
It’s also fairly confused about who its main protagonists are supposed to be; Chappie and Deon are the natural heart of the story, but so much of the film focuses on the exploits of Die Antwoord – only one of whom can act, in a stupendously muggish way – it might as well be a promotional vehicle for their next grasp at the brass ring. Speaking of promotion, Sony leaves no opportunity to shill for its computer products – Vaios here, PlayStations there – while computer geeks will guffaw at the prospect of an entire human consciousness fitting onto a USB flash drive, let alone a bog-standard laptop.
And yes, like with District 9 before it, there’s more than a hint of racism creep in a film that’s set and shot in Jo’burg, the largest city in southern Africa, and goes out of its way to portray ‘Rainbow Nation’ ethnic pluralism in its ancillary characters, but has a main cast that’s almost exclusively white, and barely half South African.
Sadly it’s flaws like these that overwhelm any good feelings poor Chappie himself might evoke, and muddy anything profound the film might want to explore about the nature of family, or the substance of being. It certainly doesn’t bode well for Blomkamp’s stab at the Alien franchise, hey.