Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Running Time: 120 mins
Release date: 6th March 2015
When Neill Blomkamp’s first sci-fi film was released, the excellent District 9, he was hailed as the new face of the genre. Then came the messy Elysium, which along with very mixed reviews, was even criticised by its own maker. Now comes a new film from the South African director, a tale of a robot with a conscience called Chappie. Is this the film that will bring back the confidence we had in Blomkamp? Or is this another Elysium? It is better than his last effort but only just.
Set in the not too distant future, where crime is out of control and the police are helpless, an arms company have produced robot cops called scouts. It’s chief designer, Deon, is working on a way to make robots have consciences and in the process, creates Chappie, an innocent, baby-like artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, gangsters Ninja, Yolandi and Yankie are planning to kidnap Deon and use his new machine to steal for them. At the same time, fellow designer Vincent, jealous of Deon’s success, has a robot of his own that he wants out on the streets.
Chappie is an odd film, with its hands in many different pots, as if it is looking for its own identity, yet finding nothing. One moment it’s all action, then it’s a comedy, then it’s a touching tale of innocence. All these elements would be fine if they connected in some way but they don’t. It seems as if Blomkamp and his screenwriting partner and real-life wife, Terri Tatchell, had a great idea but no clue what to do with it.
So we see this child-like machine as it learns about life, about people and, more importantly, is taught about humanity while being shown the ropes as a gangsta. These moments bring out the “aahh” factor and are mildly amusing and wouldn’t look out-of-place in a children’s adventure. However, we’re not in a kid’s film. This is Blomkamp and he wants large, explosive set pieces with bullets flying and people screaming obscenities. So while the cute stuff is definitely Short Circuit territory, it keeps jumping into Robocop world, with a splash of A.I in between.
While it’s deciding what it wants to be, the tone of the piece is muddled and so it leaves the audience rather cold and just a little confused. Don’t get me wrong, the set pieces are spectacular and the quieter, more comic moments are funny. It does leave you slightly emotional-less. You don’t really care too much about the characters and only care about Chappie himself.
There are also some strange plot devices going on as well. The company that make the robots seem to have the worst security in the world, in which a man can drive a van up to the warehouse, remove a whole robot and parts, then drive off without anyone stopping him or checking CCTV. Worrying when you think that they make weapons!
That aside, there is plenty of things that do work, none more so than Shartlo Copley’s creation of Chappie. The star of Blomkamp’s District 9 is given the task of bringing the robot to life and he does so magnificently. A gentle mix of humour with a slice of mimickery and wonderment, Chappie is a terrific character that many would find hard not to warm to. The scenes in which he has to steal cars is a real hoot, with Chappie all full of nervous energy.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Dev Patel is a lot calmer than his hyperactive hotel manager from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but it’s a workmanlike performance that doesn’t have too much depth. Sigourney Weaver is wasted as the CEO of the arms company, with her spending most of the time behind a desk, speaking to her workers through an intercom system. Real life South African rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi are perfect fine as the gangsters who take him as part of their gang and Blomkamp is obviously a fan as their songs are littered throughout the film.
As for Hugh Jackman. If the biggest talking point about the film is an actor’s mullet, then there’s something wrong with the rest of the film. Strutting around in shorts and looking mean and moody while carrying a rugby ball, this isn’t the nice guy Jackman we have all grown to love, yet we are told time and time again during the first half that he’s not very nice. We don’t need it sign posted every five minutes, we get it.
It’s so frustrating. You can see that Blomkamp is a director who can handle the big action sequences and who has a love for sci-fi but this is a film without an identity, a film wanting to be many things yet failing in all. Chappie isn’t terrible, it’s just a mess and while his previous film wasn’t that successful, the strength of its title character keeps the whole thing afloat until the bizarre finale which, basically lost it for me. Not a total disaster but if he is to helm a new Alien film, he’s going to have to do better than this.