It’s the near future. The city of Johannesburg has set up the world’s only robotic police force to tackle a rising crime wave. But what happens when a robot starts to think for itself?
Inventor Deon Wilson (played by Dev Patel) wants more than to create simple weapons. Although his ‘Scout’ series has set the standard for autonomous policing, Deon has far loftier ambitions – to create a robot that thinks and feels. But it seems he has other problems.
Of course, Deon’s success has resulted in the sidelining of several other projects… and this soon makes an enemy out of rival engineer, Vincent Moore (played by Hugh Jackman). The mulleted, cut-off wearing ex-soldier is a real hardass, and isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers.
And when his overpowered combat droid (the Moose) is underfunded due to the success of Deon’s scouts, he decides to take matters into his own hands. All he needs is a bit of dirt to bring Deon down, and when the young robotics expert starts experimenting with A.I. it looks as though Vincent may have what he needs…
Introducing Chappie – the product of Deon’s experiments. He’s a thinking, feeling robot with the capacity to learn and develop. And to some, he’s just a step too far.
I’ll be honest – I’ve been looking forward to this film for a long time. I’ve been following development since I first heard Blomkamp was making another film… and after watching the utterly impressive first trailer, I was hooked.
But sadly, the film doesn’t live up to its promise.
At its core, ‘Chappie’ takes the premise of ‘Short Circuit’ and shoehorns it into a much grittier, urban setting. It’s a nice idea and often works well, but I get the feeling that the beauty of the film’s core concept is in its simplicity.
And that simplicity is eventually abandoned in an effort to be a bit too clever.
There are some ambitious ideas here, but the film never quite delivers. And often, I found myself picking apart flaws in the movie’s logic. Yes, Vincent’s huge robotic monstrosity was clearly not fit for police work… but why didn’t the corporation rebrand the machine and sell it on as military-grade tech? Hell, how did it get made in the first place?
It’s simple notions like this that make the film fall apart at the seams. But that’s not to say there aren’t some truly great moments.
Much of Chappie’s early development is incredibly touching, and as Yolandi develops a strong bond with the robot, it’s clear from very early on that she becomes a surrogate mother. Caring for him and reading him bedtime stories, Chappie brings out the nurturing side to the otherwise criminal gangster. And it makes her a brilliantly rounded character.
Of course, Yolandi Visser’s slight oddness only adds to the role. It’s clear that she’s not like everyone else, and neither is Chappie. And so the two go together rather well.
But Ninja is another matter entirely…
A brash, selfish and pig-headed man, Yolandi’s other half serves as Chappie’s reluctant father figure… but this time it’s far more problematic. Chappie clearly looks up to him and tries to emulate how he acts and what he does. But Ninja has no problem exploiting him.
He’s all about the money and in that sense, Chappie is merely a tool to Ninja – a means to an end. And his constant betrayal makes it difficult to see him as anything other than an utterly despicable person.
Of course, there’s the hint of redemption, but it’s short-lived and not exactly effective. Perhaps the biggest problem with Ninja is that there’s not much emotional depth to this character… and that goes for much of the rest of the cast, too.
Unfortunately, there’s just not much depth to Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore… and his unsubtle performance seems to continually beat you over the head with the idea that this man of religion will no doubt oppose the creation of A.I. on dubious moral grounds.
And Sigourney Weaver isn’t much better.
Her role seems all too comfortable – she’s clearly a powerhouse corporate type at the top of her game… and when the shit hits the fan, she finds it difficult to cope. But that’s about all we get from the usually brilliant actress.
Not that it’s her fault – but I get the feeling she didn’t have an awful lot to work with.
Of course, Sharlto Copley is the real star, here – providing motion capture for the robot, Chappie. His nuanced performance provides enormous depth to a character that we see going through all stages of life – learning and developing from a scared child into a complex and lovable individual.
In this sense, I get the feeling that the failure to develop the human characters is almost a conscious decision – highlighting the increasing humanity in our robotic hero as he develops from a scared child into a robot who is willing to sacrifice himself to do the right thing.
But while this all sounds good on paper, the reality is that Chappie’s supporting cast quickly become caricatures of themselves… and it’s increasingly difficult to empathise with any of them.
Again, perhaps that’s all done for a reason – to make Chappie himself more relatable. But the effect is wholly unsettling and only serves to make you wonder quite why the rest of them are such terrible human beings.
Aside from Yolandi, that is. She’s rather good.
But the main problem with ‘Chappie’ is a simple one – it could have been so much more. It’s easy to see how director Neill Blomkamp has tried to break the mould with a gritty storyline and excellent visuals. But the problem is that he tries a bit too hard. Introducing new elements into the third act only weakens the film’s emotional impact… and manages to uproot the film from its technology-based roots.
Had the film taken a far simpler approach, I feel that ‘Chappie’ could have been the perfect sci-fi action movie. But as it stands, the little-robot-that-could tried a bit too hard to please.