Review: ‘Chappie’ (should have hired WALL-E’s agent)

RoboCop fused with Short Circuit reimagined as a prequel to The Road Warrior.

In the near future, violent crime in Johannesburg, South Africa has skyrocketed. With law enforcement overwhelmed, the city turns to a robotics company, deploying “scouts” to turn the tide. Scout designer Deon (Dev Patel) is the star of the robotics company but dreams of something other than programming: a true artificial intelligence to determine right from wrong. Rival designer and ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman) oozes with jealousy over Deon’s success, watching his neural-controlled overkill “moose” robot wasting away from a lack of funds. When Deon cracks the A.I. code and steals a busted scout robot to test his new program, he runs afoul of petty criminals Ninja and Yolandi (as themselves) and activates the robot for them. While “Chappie” (Sharlto Copley) begins to learn at an incredible rate, Vincent figures out what Deon is up to and decides to escalate the situation to his advantage…poorly.

Neill Blomkamp loves the human condition, but his stories often appear hopelessly bleak. Chappie is an R-rated fairy tale with technology instead of magic – strike that: technology AS magic. It’s like a kids movie for adults, perhaps additionally inspired from Robocop (and WOW, does “the moose” look way too much like ED-209 with a VTOL upgrade!) The humor feels just as derived from the Short Circuit franchise with all the gangsta/thuggie spray-painted trappings you can cringe at. At its core, there is an interesting story about a new-born robot finding out what it’s like to come into a bleak world, but with all the other distractions, it just becomes buried beneath everything else. While the film looks big, you can feel the budget constraints; in a city full of crime, no one ever seems to be watching these monitors or guarding anything, even at the place where they make the robot guards!

Yes, Jackman is the bad guy, showing up looking like he just came off of vacation; his character is so one-dimensional that one must assume it was written that way. Also, if we never see Sigourney Weaver again playing another empty suit, it’ll be too soon. Blomkamp’s favorite go-to guy Sharlto Copley goes all motion-capture to portray Chappie, easily the most developed character in the film. Real-life musicians Ninja and Yolandi (of “Die Antwoord,” a South African rap-rave group) manage to win you over with their vagrant living-on-the-outskirts lifestyle, innocents of society as they try to make their own way apart from it – not the worst idea, everything considered. Jose Pablo Cantillo, who many know as Martinez from AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” rounds out Chappie’s role models as a thug named “Yankie Amerika.”

The best parts of the film involve Chappie “recovering stolen property” with Ninja and Amerika; the scenes are ridiculous fun, promising what the story could have been more about, even when it became serious. Perhaps intentionally, the so-called important people were the least interesting (and the better known actors) while the rogues stole the show but with far less consideration. Yolandi’s motherly instincts toward Chappie inform maternal desires that Ninja doesn’t get, but even he shows genuine emotion about mistreating the sentient robot; it made sense to have Chappie bonding with these people. Unfortunately, so much of the story is devoted to everything else going on around it, including some incredibly questionable pseudoscience which goes so New-Age electronic that it feels like a rushed cheat to set up a sequel (not to mention all the product placements from Sony). That’s a shame, too; while Chappie is easy to love, his film fails to elicit the same emotion.

(a two skull recommendation out of four)

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