In Chappie, a lawless Johannesburg of the future is policed with the help of robots developed by the brilliant Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Unknown to his superior (Sigourney Weaver), Deon has developed an experimental A.I. designed to learn and feel like a human and installed it in a robot scheduled for destruction (Sharlto Copley). The robot, nicknamed Chappie, is stolen by a group of low-level criminals (Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of Die Antwoord), who plan to use Chappie in a heist. Meanwhile, Chappie’s existence is threatened by Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), one of Deon’s jealous colleagues.
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the sci-fi scene with his magnificent District 9, which served as both a fresh take on the alien invasion trope and a powerful (albeit occasionally loud) reflection on the apartheid system in his native South Africa. His followup, Elysium, aimed for a broader vision but fell short of the mark, never quite resolving its dual nature as an action vehicle and a message movie. Chappie falls somewhere in between the two, but instead of taking the best from both films, it takes random bits and tries to assemble them into a whole that rarely works as intended.
The CGI work on Chappie is admittedly quite impressive, at least. He has a tactile realness to him without ever setting foot in the uncanny valley. Copley provides both his voice and movements, and it doesn’t take long for Chappie to seem like an actual actor. In fact, his performance often eclipses the rest of the cast.
Jackman doesn’t invest much into Vincent, whose characterization can be summarized as “Australian sociopath who is also very religious.” His “nerd vs. jock” rivalry with Patel never seems to carry any weight. Weaver seems only to be on hand to shore up the film’s sci-fi street cred (and she knows it). Ninja and Visser essentially play themselves, and they eclipse the film’s more seasoned cast easily. Visser is especially good as Chappie’s “mommy,” dialing down the grunge Lolita of her stage persona to portray true vulnerability and heart.
The film is ultimately undone by its heavy-handed script. Blomkamp never met a metaphor he couldn’t deliver with a sledgehammer. The film is almost billed as a comedy, but it is rarely funny on purpose, and it has few characters worth rooting for. Most are either heartless corporate types or unscrupulous gangsters, and nobody aside from Visser goes very deep with their performance. The film’s uneven tone and unsteady pace come to a head in the climax, which takes every action movie cliche it can and runs with them, completely without irony. Throw in a left-field ending that undercuts the movie’s themes (and leads to a literal deus ex machina), and it’s clear that there are just a few too many bugs in this machine.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-