Cinematic Releases: Chappie

Is Chappie Blomkamp's comeback?

Director Neill Blomkamp has had a bit of a bumpy ride in the film business thus far. After coming out of nowhere with his gritty science fiction movie District 9, which was well-received by moviegoers and critics alike, he faltered somewhat with his follow-up film Elysium. Blomkamp seems to love him some dystopian sci-fi stories set in ramshackle South African towns and he doesn’t stray too far from his usual motif with his newest film, Chappie.

In the not-too-distant future, crime has become so bad in regions of South Africa that they have resorted to using robot police to keep the peace. The inventor of the robots, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has secretly been working on a sentient artificial intelligence and bestows it upon a robot that has been damaged in a police raid. In what is essentially a mechanical version of Pinocchio, we follow the trials and tribulations of the former police robot Chappie as he tries to navigate life and figure out the meaning of his existence and newfound consciousness. 

While Chappie is obviously the star of the show, Blomkamp made some…interesting casting choices. Sigourney Weaver plays the head of the corporation who makes the robotic policemen—she’s not utilized for much and gives an adequate if bland performance. Hugh Jackman does his best Steve Irwin impression as rival robot developer Vincent Moore, but his motivations for his actions are never clearly explained. In fact, other than Chappie, all the characters are underwritten and shallow making it hard to care about them when the plot requires it. 

"Yolandi, please put down 
your acting career.
You have 20 seconds to comply."
There has been much to-do about South African performance artists/rap group Die Antwoord being in the film. They are in essence playing “themselves” (even going so far as keeping their stage names) but unfortunately their acting is absolutely terrible. I understand their neon-colored, trashy crust punk appeal, but it works better in small concentrated doses such as in their off-the-wall music videos. They are in most of the movie and just do not have the acting chops to carry a feature film. It brings down the entire movie and is at times cringe worthy. For some unknown reason they hang out with a stereotypical Hispanic gangster who looks like he was transported from the year 1994. It doesn’t fit with the tone of the film at all. 

Up to this point, it sounds like Chappie is a complete failure, right? Here is where it gets interesting, Chappie is an incredibly well-written character and there is some gold to be found amongst the trash. Oddly enough, the most relatable character in the whole film is a damn robot! Chappie is so inquisitive and child-like with his twitchy dual-colored antenna and excitable demeanor. The CGI animators did an excellent job with his body language and facial expressions and it gave him real emotion and personality. In a way, you get to watch Chappie go through all of the stages of childhood development—I wish Blomkamp would have explored that aspect more thoroughly He was so close to really having something to say about what it means to be self-aware and to be human, but he squanders most of that opportunity with a weak narrative. Chappie’s voice actor Sharlto Copley breathes life into his performance and is endearing. Voice actors don’t often get enough credit for what they bring to the table. Every scene with Chappie in it is excellent and saves this movie from being a complete bomb. 

"Hey, Die Antwoord. I'm the robot.
I'll do the acting, OK?"
The score is one of the highlights of the film and it’s provided by veteran Hans Zimmer. While it does feature his usual chord progressions and heavy drums, it’s much more electronic sounding this time around. There is a distinct eighties action movie soundtrack thing going on—if Hans Zimmer scored eighties movies, that is. It’s mixed with some rap songs by Die Antwoord as well, and it is a jarring mixture occasionally. Their music is definitely unique sounding, but I’m not sure if it’s right for this particular genre of film. 

Overall, Chappie is an extremely uneven and unbalanced film. It’s too bad because underneath all of the action and confusing casting choices, there is a delicious nougat center filled with heart and intelligence. There are moments where I could see what Blomkamp was trying to accomplish and it’s sad that this film didn’t reach its full potential. For those moments, it is worth checking out the film, but I warn that you may be disappointed and ultimately perplexed more than you are moved.

- Michelle Kisner