Based on his first three feature-length efforts, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp seems inherently drawn to the paradox of technology’s advancement colliding with man’s inability to reconcile his increasing minimization within that world. At times more successful than others (such as in District 9 and the terrific Elysium) it’s an important rhetoric as the world becomes more plugged in and downloadable every single day. But Chappie, his most direct exploration of this theme yet, falls maddeningly short of anything but derivative and empty spectacle.
Set in the near future of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016 (and does that even count as “futuristic”?), Chappie is one of several hundred robot police officers designed by whip-smart engineer Deon (Dev Patel) and employed by the local police to help curb the spiraling crime rate.
Part of that spiraling problem involves Ninja and Yolandi (both played by actors with those real names apparently) and their quest for quick cash to pay back the local crime boss, Hippo (Brandon Auret), whose ‘badness’ is assured since he’s covered in tattoos and speaks a South African dialect so broken and unintelligible that he’s subtitled throughout the movie. He also uses a gold-plated gun, which any action fan understands always belongs to the villain. Ninja and Yolandi concoct a scenario where they steal the controls to a random police robot and utilize its superhuman strength for their own devious motives and exact their debt to Hippo.
At the same time, Deon is mired in bureaucratic indifference by his boss (Sigourney Weaver) at not wanting to test a new consciousness simulation on the robots as well as friction with competitive designer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a man just chomping at the bit to invent any excuse for his own brand of robotic killing machine to become the new police frontline over Deon’s invention. And did I mention his version happens to look just like that marvelous Ed 209 machine in Robocop?
From these varying factions, Chappie is born, figuratively, from the scrap heap and manipulated in a number of ways. Once kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi, Chappie resembles an orphan adopted by a very bad set of parents while the film desperately tries to equate the travails of puberty and adolescence onto this conscious hunk of metal. Ninja and Yolandi teach it to walk, talk, strut and hold a gun. Chappie develops intelligence and begins to have internal moral conflicts when it comes to committing crimes with his “father” Ninja. Some of the best moments with Yolandi, who forms a maternal bond with the machine, are too few and far between until the film shifts its focus back to the muttering, macho Ninja or the pouting Hugh Jackman, maneuvering computer viruses and late night download sessions to create his own robotic apocalypse.
Despite all this tech affluence and seamless CGI interaction of Chappie himslf (embodied by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley), it’s an especially bone-headed film and the type that defies common logic. Just why is such an ultra secure, top-secret hangar so easy for everyone to whisk materials and weapons in and out of? Why does Sigourney Weaver, when faced with the situation of a robot pounding a man to death in front of her, grab her jacket and purse before fleeing the room? How does anyone expect any sympathy for such an annoying, nihilistic group of thieves and murderers? Why does a film hinge its power on the affection for a robot (call it the lost puppy syndrome) then utterly fail to create any indelible characteristics of said robot?
Like an adrenalized update of Short Circuit, Blomkamp and partner writer Terri Tatchell yearn for the film to hurdle through emotions of compassion and sentiment for this little robot trying to find his way in a violent, chaotic world. It doesn’t work, and I wager that there’s more depth and heart in just a few minutes of Short Circuit than this film’s entire looong running time of two hours. I honestly never thought I’d type that.
Chappie opens in wide release across all of North Texas on Friday, March 6.