Oh, Chappie… you magnificent bastard. We love you so!
Writer-director Neill Blomkamp pushes all his chips onto the table with this fascinating sci-fi gamble that dares you not to be entertained. Derivative, ultra-violent, and completely baffling, Chappie also manages to be insightful and sweet at times. This technically-accomplished and thematically-suspect robot melodrama has something for everyone to love (and hate). Mostly, it offers the giddy exhilaration of a movie that’s determined to tell its story, no matter how bat-shit crazy it is.
You didn’t know that you wanted to hear Sigourney Weaver scream, “Destroy that robot!” or that you needed a mash-up of District 9, Short Circuit, RoboCop, and Real Steel about a robot gangbanger who talks and acts like Jar Jar Binks. Luckily, Chappie exists so you can see what you’ve been missing.
Neill Blomkamp sets Chappie in a destitute Johannesburg riddled by crime and desperation. Brainy engineer Deon (Dev Patel) has created a squad of robot policemen that is turning the tide, however. The human policemen love the added protection and Deon’s boss (Sigourney Weaver) loves counting her money. Not everyone is happy, though. Deon’s jealous co-worker, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), wants to build a bigger, stronger robot that does the bidding of its human creator via a neural net. Criminals are suitably upset, as well, including our three “heroes,” Ninja (played by… Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who need one last score before they ride into the sunset. Even Deon is restless, as he works surreptitiously to create a sentient robot named Chappie (Sharlto Copley). Our criminal heroes decide to kidnap Deon and make him turn off the robots, while Vincent tries to capitalize on the chaos to launch his own robot monstrosity. Sounds perfectly reasonable in a world gone mad, right?
While it’s difficult to speculate about the jumbled thematic goals of Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell, all of these characters wish to play god in some fashion or another. Deon’s motivations for building Chappie are nebulous at best, but he’s genuinely excited about granting his creation the gift (or curse) of self-determination. Vincent, who sports the most bizarrely villainous haircut since Anton Chigurh (it looks like he let the robots cut his hair), wants to deliver his own brand of fire and brimstone to the “Philistines.” The three villainous caretakers try to manipulate the naïve Chappie, even as they bond with him in strange and sometimes unsettling ways. Finally, Chappie becomes obsessed with preserving his consciousness and choosing a new body so he can live forever. The message about oppressive societies teaching violence doesn’t work nearly as well for Blomkamp as it did in District 9, but it’s still a sublime pleasure to watch a dunderheaded gangster lovingly teach his robot “son” how to shoot a machine gun, or use a rubber chicken to enable a carjacking.
Yes, everything about Chappie is heavy-handed (Chappie’s favorite book is a children’s fable called “The Black Sheep.” Get it? We’re all special in our own way, dammit!), but it’s this gratuitous undercurrent that makes it so much fun. The violence is graphic and unnecessarily jarring, each dramatic computer download is accompanied by an agonizingly-slow status bar, characters make increasingly dumb decisions that have no logical basis in reality, and operatic gestures of self-sacrifice are accompanied by the required amount of slow motion wankery. Genres and tones are haphazardly mixed; a moment of motherly love juxtaposed with pistol-whipping works particularly well. One is reminded, in spirit, of Luc Besson’s masterpiece of excess, 2014’s Lucy. All it takes is for you to accept Chappie on its own gloriously overwrought terms and you can have a blast with this stupid robot and his crew.
Speaking of robots…
Muck like Serkis’ Gollum from the Lord of the Rings universe, Copley’s Chappie is a remarkable technical achievement that blends seamlessly into his surroundings. His take on the lovable but dangerous robot is more whimsical than you might imagine. That he bears a closer spiritual resemblance to Baymax than the Terminator is a controversial choice that pays maximum comic dividends, both intentionally and accidentally. The special effects and practical set pieces look terrific together, creating a convincing landscape of hopelessness and terror. Blomkamp really understands how to frame the chaos when all hell finally breaks loose.
Each performer seems to strike just the right balance between over-the-top buffoonery and painful earnestness. More importantly, everyone is taking the material seriously. Even Jackman and Weaver, who are clearly having a blast delivering their ridiculous dialogue, are too busy playing their characters to be caught winking at the camera. Yo-Landi Visser is particularly effective as Chappie’s adoptive “mother,” who has the only discernible character arc in the entire film. These may be unsympathetic characters that are borderline psychotic, but their unconventional love for Chappie makes them just endearing enough to keep you invested in their fate.
From a script that never coalesces, to disorienting tonal shifts, Chappie is a bad movie by almost every measurable standard. It’s impossible to fathom what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish with this mishmash of influences and themes. Yet, it’s made with such craft and unrelenting sincerity that its foibles become infectious. It’s not for everyone, to be sure. Those willing to set aside judgment in favor of having a good time, however, are in for a real treat. No one will ever accuse this robot of going through the motions.