Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 120 minutes
The world of Chappie, set only a few years in the future, is a return to Blomkamp's District 9 roots. The setting is Johannesburg, and technological advances are few and far between. This time, however, the sci-fi pieces of the story stem not from alien refugees, but from man-made devices. Seeking to cut down on crime rates (as well as officer fatalities), South Africa implements the world's first robotic police force, courtesy of the Tetra Vaal corporation, headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Lead programmer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the true star of the company, and is doing his best to push the robots even further: he wants to create a truly sentient robot, capable of emotions and opinions. He even has a malfunctioning police robot that would be perfect to test his new program on. Bradley is dismissive of the idea, as is co-worker (and former soldier) Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has a near-religious fear of AI. With its corporate overlords and security state parallels, Chappie lays out a basic foundation that one expects of this sort of sci-fi adventure. And then the rappers step in.
Though one of the film's eventual protagonists is the titular robot (created via motion capture with actor Sharlto Copley), the biggest casting risk found in Chappie is the use of South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord. Members Yolandi Visser and Ninja play fictionalized (and gangsta-ized) versions of their stage personas, and they represent Chappie biggest gamble (yes, moreso than forcing Jackman to sport a mullet from hell). Everything about them is attention-grabbing, from their speaking voices to their decorative instincts (the duo's lair appears to have been marked up with a mix of chalk and highlighters). In essence, they look like extras from a Mad Max film by way of an episode of Wacky Races. The pair hijacks Deon's truck (with the future Chappie in tow), and steal the droid in an attempt to hack the system (the "off switch" for the police bots is kept in a heavily-guarded vault). Given the nature of Deon's program, Chappie starts out with the robot equivalent of a toddler's capabilities.
Chappie's childlike personality informs the central conflict of the story, which sees Deon, Yolandi, and Ninja all trying to raise the droid in different ways. While Deon and (surprisingly) Yolandi are gentle, Ninja has no patience for the creature's infantile first phases. Had Blomkamp and co-writer Teri Tatchell honed in on the story's family of freaky outsiders, Chappie might have built to something genuinely resonant. Instead, the scattershot script is constantly interrupting Chappie's growth with not one, but two completely separate villains. In addition to Jackman's increasingly unhinged Vincent, Blomkamp also insists on holding onto local gang lord Hippo (Brandon Auret), to whom Yolandi and Ninja owe millions of dollars.
With so much crammed in, Chappie is narratively overstuffed, even at two hours. Just as Yolandi and Ninja clash when it comes to how to raise their titanium-coated child, Blomkamp and Tatchell struggle to streamline the various pieces of the story into a coherent final product. There's little change in the filmmaking when Blomkamp tries to inject some odd-ball black comedy, and then switch to what should be a more introspective moment. The pacing is monotonous, leaving the smaller moments - such as a damaged and heart-broken Chappie finding companionship with a stray dog - without room to take hold. With sharper scripting and more varied direction, Chappie could have conjured up some moments of WALL-E-type grace, albeit with a bizarro, R-rated edge. Instead, these potentially affecting moments move along as if they're being rolled off of an assembly line, just like the rest of the film.
Mr. Copley, who has had a major role in all of Blomkamp's work to date, is hurt most of all by the film's failings. The heart and soul of the character never has a fighting chance against the suffocating, increasingly stupid escalation of the plot. As is to be expected, Blomkamp's ability to come up with designs for robots, weapons, vehicles, but his filmmaking robs Chappie and Copley of the opportunity to create something on the same level as Andy Serkis' creations in The Lord of the Rings or Planet of the Apes. Copley has turned in a few truly bad performances since District 9, but when working with Blomkamp, the actor is in his element. If only the director had given him the attention he deserved here.
Other performances unremarkable, and, like Copley, are let down by both the writing and direction. Patel comes closest to giving a legitimately good performance. In his interactions with Chappie, Patel brings a lot of heart to Deon, the only person who has the robot's best interests in mind from the very start. Jackman has fun playing a villain, but all of his scenes are reliant on the same one-note menace. Weaver, no stranger to making her mark in science fiction, is utterly wasted in what basically amounts to a glorified cameo.
Yet even though Chappie is the would-be heart of the story, nothing better encapsulates the experience of Chappie the film like Die Antwoord. Though neither have acting experience, the duo's freaky, theatrical performance styles aren't an entirely bad match for the screen. But, in keeping with everyone else, Yolandi and Ninja are flat, one-note characters (that Ninja is nothing but a jackass until the final minutes doesn't help at all). Their top-to-bottom weirdness is curious and refreshing at first, and lends the film a distinctly South African stamp. But in the context of Blomkamp's repetitive, at times incoherent, filmmaking, even the allure of their unique identities feels worn out by the end. Weirdness for the sake of weirdness can produce arresting results (e.g. the best work of David Lynch), but when said weirdness is filtered through increasingly routine blockbuster chaos, it winds up as intellectually and emotionally hollow as most of the robots on screen.