‘Chappie’ Review: Not Quite RoboCop, But No Short Circuit

'Chappie'

Movie Rating:

3

‘District 9’ was an explosive announcement of new directorial voice, but now, two movies later, Neill Blomkamp is still struggling to top or even match it. The verdict has yet to drop as to whether he’s a one-hit wonder, but at least ‘Chappie’, his remixed vision of similar elements, is unlike anything else competing in the blockbuster arena at the moment. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing in this case, but at least it’s a thing.

The film takes place in a futuristic South Africa that, much like ‘District 9’, is the same as contemporary South Africa with one sci-fi twist. This time, there are a collection of drone RoboCops… sorry, robot cops… that march the streets and help keep the peace. Dev Patel plays Deon, the scientist who created the machines and also just had a breakthrough inventing artificial intelligence that he wants to test out. Unfortunately, his stuffy boss (Sigourney Weaver) has no interest in that breakthrough, so Deon is forced to steal a robot to give consciousness.

As soon as he does, he’s kidnapped by a pair of street thugs (South African rappers Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord, who also fill the soundtrack with their songs and wear their own merch just in case you haven’t heard of them). They want to keep the robot for themselves to pull off a heist. The robot is quickly named Chappie and soon develops a charmingly childish personality that Deon wants to turn into an artist but Ninja wants to turn into a gang member. Further complicating things is the presence of a mullet-sporting Hugh Jackman as Deon’s army competition. He wants to destroy the RoboCop program to launch his own human-controlled killing machine that looks strikingly like the ED209. Naturally, that means the film races towards a climax that’s both about the nature of consciousness and filled with machine gun action scenes where things go boom.

First, the good news, and there’s plenty of it. Chappie himself is a remarkable creation, both in terms of Sharlto Copley’s wonderful motion-capture performance (which is particularly touching in the earliest infantile sequences) and the stunning CGI wizardry. Blompkamp has been one of the best practitioners of digital effects since his commercial days, and ‘Chappie’ shows that he’s lost none of those skills. The lead robot seamlessly mixes with the human actors, and the action set-pieces near the finale offer some applause-worthy visceral entertainment.

Blompkamp’s interest in mixing thoughtful sci-fi with genre action also hasn’t waned. He intriguingly toys with notions of A.I. consciousness between rounds of gunfire. Like ‘District 9’, the movie mixes concepts to mull over without easy answers, along with plenty of sleazy fun. Blompkamp also has a blast giving audiences tonal whiplash, nimbly jumping from action to comedy to thought experiments and drama. He even packs an unexpected emotional punch with a movie that wants to find a halfway point between ‘RoboCop’ and ‘E.T.’, and then sets it within a specifically South African gangster milieu. There’s a lot going on in ‘Chappie’ and it’s hard not to admire the ambition of the production.

Now the bad news. There’s far too much going on in ‘Chappie’ for one movie to contain. At its best, the film hits ‘RoboCop’/’E.T.’ peaks, but at its worst it feels more like the ‘RoboCop’ remake meets ‘Short Circuit 2′. As amusing as it can be to watch Blomkamp attempt to mix together three or four different movies at once, it’s often incredibly frustrating and you’ll wish he’d made just one movie instead.

His desire to keep the narrative racing forward at all times also leads to plenty of plot holes, logic leaps and cloying sentimentality. While it’s amusing stunt-casting to sneak Die Antwoord into a Hollywood production, the rawness of the non-actors’ performances is awkwardly stilted as often as it is unpredictably unmannered. Worst of all, just like his last movie ‘Elysium’, there’s a sense that Blomkamp bit off more than he could chew with ‘Chappie’. He probably could have used a little more time ironing out the script and deciding what he actually wanted to say before rushing into production.

Still, if I had the choice between watching a movie that fails because it’s completely lacking in content or ambition (like a ‘Transformers’ sequel) or a movie that doesn’t quite hold together because it just has too much going on, I’ll take the latter every time. From the first frame to the last, there’s no question that the project sprung from Blompkamp’s very specific imagination, even if he wasn’t always sure what to do with all of his ideas. It’s both an action flick unafraid to revel in R-rated naughtiness and a sweet little sci-fi movie willing to show a scientist earnestly teach a robot how to paint. That’s a nutty concoction and certainly not one that will appeal to everyone, but at least it’s a distinct vision that hits some original high notes in between the ones that play off-key.

Blompkamp hopefully has another film as strong as ‘District 9’ in him, but even if that movie never materializes, at least his failed attempts will swing wildly for the fences and feel like nothing else. I say bring on his ‘Alien’ sequel. Good or bad, it’ll shake up a franchise that’s in need of a good shake.

15 comments

  1. I love his movies, District 9 was probably the best Scifi film in a decade when it came out, Elysium felt more visceral with his brand of action and thought provoking ideas about Society, if Chappie is even close to those two, it will be a huge win IMO. Soon as I saw the trailer for this I couldnt wait to see it and I do have to say, even if the lows are the Robocop remake and Short Circuit 2, thats still better than most of the junk hitting theaters lately, because I actually liked the Robocop remake and have a soft spot for both Short Circuit movies from my childhood 🙂

    • I watched Elysium fully expecting to give it a pass as a brainless action movie, but it just flat-out sucked. I honestly don’t understand what there is to like about it.

      • The fact that I like Elysium more than District 9 says more about my dislike of District 9 than my love for Elysium. But I did give it 3 (out of 5) stars. I thought it was well-directed, despite having a rather simplistic story.

      • PaulB

        The visuals and some action. The rest was just bad writing and absurd situations. (Side annoyance about it, I’m still not sure how all the rich are supposed to be happy with this finite sized ring. That little plan would go to hell after one generation’s population growth.)

  2. Chris B

    Haha the title of this review made me smile…I LOVED Shirt Circuit as a kid, not sure it would hold up at all if I saw it today though.I’ve been looking forward to this for a while as an action/sci-fi beacon in the dark sea of crap floating around in the theatres at the moment. Looking forward to checking it out next week.

    Philip, I read another review that made specific mention of Hans Zimmer’s score for the film. As he’s my favorite composer it pretty much sealed the deal for me to catch this one in the theatres. Did the music stick out at all to you while watching the film? Any thoughts on it good or bad?

    • Phil Brown

      Hans Zimmer does good work as always, BUT there’s as much Die Antwoord music on the soundtrack as Zimmer. He also weirdly adopts their style just a little bit, which is kind of interesting. I wouldn’t say it’s his best score, but it’s still pretty great. Zimmer scores are kind of like pizza. They’re never bad, it’s just that some are better than others.

  3. “It’s a distinct vision that hits some original high notes in between the ones that play off-key.” Lovely sentence. Great work, Philip.

  4. PaulB

    It seems as though you are trying to use Short Circuit as an insult, and if so you get 10 demerits and your momma was a snowblower.

    As for this, reading the reviews it seems like issue is that he doesn’t seem to know how to write naturalism or subtlety. More like he does plot points and just writes things to get us to those beats and he seems to direct most folks in a way that they are caricature. I loved District 9 and accepted the bad guys as being the mustache twirling types as the general storyline, aliens and the protagonist were great. Weapons and the fighting were unique enough as well. But after Elysium and the reviews I’m seeing here, it seems like it isn’t a choice he made with the acting and plot, rather that is all he knows.
    Obviously a seriously talented technical guy with some good visual ideas but someone else should be writing and perhaps directing (I’d like to see what he can do with someone else’s writing and story to determine if he really isn’t a good director).

    Concerning it is starting to feel a bit like a M. Night Shyamalan one trick pony situation.

  5. Saw this last night and thought it was just “okay”. Very derivative of sci-fi movies we’ve seen before, yet easy enough to enjoy – and certainly not deserving of the lashing its getting from critics. I think it’s about as good as Elysium was, so if you hated that movie, you probably won’t like this one, either.

    This is probably not something you’ll want to run out and pay $10 to $12 bucks to see (I saw it on IMAX, but don’t think the larger format really added anything), but it’s definitely worth a rental down the road.

    • Phil Brown

      You’re right. I didn’t mean to suggest that I despise Elysium by any means. It’s flawed, but with some compelling ideas and wonderful imagery. The same is true of Chappie, it’s just flawed and fascinating in slightly different ways. I guess I prefer Chappie because it felt a little bit more wild and unpredictable. And probably because of all the ways it called back to District 9, even if it did so in derivative ways.

  6. Chapz Kilud

    Saw the movie on IMAX yesterday. It was surprisingly good. I didn’t think there was too much going on. There are some plot holes here and there, but for me it wasn’t serious. I agree it could have been made better with improvement on scripts. For some reason the similarity between Robocop and Short Circuit didn’t bother me. It felt like a completely different movie. There will be more movies in the future about A.I. so every producers will have different takes on it and it’s impossible to avoid being similar to previous movie one way or another. But you have to say this was definitely a whole lot better than Transcendence.

  7. Saw it in IMAX this past weekend, and it was really entertaining. Not surprised that it had such a poor box office showing. (way to go Sony) Chappie is great, the action is great, Deon and the gangsters are pretty good. Hugh Jackman’s character on the other hand is quite lacking for real purpose. He wants to deploy the Ed-209 thing, but instead has to spend most of the movie being an angry guy at his desk and stalking Deon. None of that should stop anyone here from seeing the movie. (Almost the whole movie goes by before it branches from the Robocop to something else entirely.) I thought it was worlds better than Elysium though it seems to have some of the same problems.

  8. Just saw it last night at the ETX theatre. I think everyone’s missing the point as to what this movie is really about. It’s not about A.I. or the oppressive police force, it’s about bad haircuts and mullets. From Hugh Jackman, to the rapping duo, to the bad guy crime boss who reminds me of a mix of the bounty hunter from Raizing Arizona and the pirate leader from Cyborg. Mullets.
    In all seriousness, I really liked this movie. I wish Blompkamp would of followed with this one instead of Elysium. I don’t think he’d be getting as much shit if this were his second flick. It feels like a very polished B movie with lots of influences besides Robocop and Short Circuit, which isn’t a bad thing. Its kind of awesome to see a filmmaker whos influenced by the stuff tou grew up on. The score is really awesome and computery, very sci-fi and 80’s. I love seeing Hugh Jackman play a bad guy and keeping his natural accent much more than seeing him play Wolverine. He made me smile every time he was on camera. He’s like an outdoorsy Dick Jones. The look, the accent worked for me. This is the second time this year I’ve heard the expression “tits up” in a movie and it cracks me up. I don’t want to give away too much, but I would say toward the end of the movie with the neural helmet and consciousness scenes is where it started to fall apart. I loved the idea of it, but it was waaaay too rushed and a few more minutes explaining it a little more would’ve helped sell it’s believability a little more. How does Chappie wear a neural helmet without a brain? He should of been plugged in. Another problem I had was with his creator and what happens to him at the end. Again, cool idea but too rushed. It will make more sense if and when you see it. Chappie himself was pretty cool, but would of worked better with a less human voice. Too much Sharlto in it. Aside from little quibbles here and there, this was very entertaining with a fantastic score ( didnt care for the rapping duo’s music too much, that girl’s voice is very pitchy) some good humor and great action. I can see this movie not appealing to everyone but it worked for me personally. More good than bad. You don’t need one hundred million dollars to make a good sci-fi flick. They took away a good chunk of Blompkamp’s budget and he made a better movie.

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