CHAPPIE. Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja and ¥o-landi Vi$$er, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Niell Blomkamp. 120 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence and coarse language).
The titular robot in ‘Chappie’ is gifted with consciousness by his creator, a working brain that thinks and feels inside a body which is capable of amazing feats of athleticism and violence. It’s apparent that the film too has these facets – a brain, heart and body – but they never mesh into one coherent finished package.
In a briskly edited montage disguised as news footage, the necessary information plays out – in 2016, Johannesburg witnessed the rollout of the first fleet of robotic police officers. To the surprise and gratification of most, they were a runaway success, slashing crime rates. The engineer responsible for the AI-cops, Deon (Dev Patel), is pleased, but his colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman, very one-note in a ridiculously unjustified character) bridles with distrust for the robo-enforcement, and keeps working on his own human-operated juggernaut crime fighter, called the ‘Moose’.
Meanwhile, local gangsters and member of global rap-rave group Die Antwoord, Ninja and ¥o-landi Vi$$er (playing themselves – I think – in a slightly confusing starring cameo), are in need of money to pay off a debt. They cook up a plan to kidnap Deon and leverage control of the police fleet from him. However, Deon can’t grant them this access. What he can offer them however, is a modified robot officer into which he has just loaded a consciousness file – a thinking, learning, living computer. Chappie (Sharlto Copley) is born.
A fight for Chappie’s innocence is launched between Deon and Ninja, the former hoping to keep his pseudo-child pure and the latter wanting to use his capabilities to assist in the crimes necessary to repay their liability. As Chappie learns and grows, he undergoes a unique formative process until Vincent finally gets his way and the ‘Moose’ is unleashed to take down Chappie and his new family of criminals.
It has all the right components to be a great film, and I’m sure it will tick many people’s boxes – it has some impressively mounted, well-shot action (with steady camerawork and judicious use of slow-motion from cinematographer Trent Opaloch), as well as big sci-fi ideas about identity and the existence of the soul. The problems here are that the action is too spectacularly violent (which adds nil to the experience) to permit wider audience access, and its best ideas are sadly pushed aside in pursuing the mandatory finale which can be described in Vincent’s words: ‘big, expensive and ugly’. Tonal shifts from family friendly, ‘E.T.’-like moments to Verhoeven’s ‘Robocop’-esque violence are jarring, and throw into question the intended audience. What’s more, the very ending feels off amidst the gritty stabs at social commentary.
All that said, director Neill Blomkamp’s below-the-line crew is uniformly great. Hans Zimmer’s propulsive, masculine score anchors the action, and his lighter touch is felt during scenes of Chappie’s ‘childhood’. The production design from Jules Cook is detailed and authentic throughout, particularly the warehouse which Ninja and ¥o-landi have converted into their dystopic playpen. As expected from such a genre film, the visual effects are consistently top-notch and the stunt team highly impressive.
After Blomkamp’s brilliant first film ‘District 9’, there were high hopes for the young South African director, which were tempered somewhat by his more polished but less cohesive follow-up ‘Elysium’. This film continues that trajectory. I sincerely hope he can buck the trend before tackling his next project, a new ‘Alien’ sequel, because its built-in fanbase will likely be less forgiving of anything less than excellence.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 12.