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Chappie Movie Review

Chappie Blu-ray cover art
Chappie is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

Chappie (2015) movie poster Chappie

Theatrical Release: March 6, 2015 / Running Time: 120 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Neill Blomkamp / Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell

Cast: Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Dev Patel (Deon Wilson), Watkin Tudor Jones (Ninja), Yo-Landi Visser (Yolandi), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Amerika), Hugh Jackman (Vincent Moore), Sigourney Weaver (Michelle Bradley), Brandon Auret (Hippo), Johnny Selema (Pitbull), Anderson Cooper (Himself)

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In 2009, Neill Blomkamp took the world by surprise with District 9. Made for a relatively modest $30 million, the feature debut of the young South African writer-director earned rave reviews and performed spectacularly at the box office
given that its only famous name belonged to producer Peter Jackson. It went on to become the rare science fiction film to elicit an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Heralded by many as a filmmaker to watch, Blomkamp took his time to make a second movie. Elysium arrived in 2013 with much more star power and a significantly bigger budget. Though still favorable, the reviews were not nearly as flattering and ticket sales were also down somewhat despite a wider opening.

Even if you enjoyed Elysium almost as much as District 9 (I did and thus included it in my recent Top 100 of the Half-Decade list), you had to acknowledge that Blomkamp's first two features were remarkably similar. Not only were both R-rated sci-fi action flicks, but they each also wielded social commentary, slum settings, and a final act that relied a bit too heavily on action. Those who called Blomkamp a one-trick pony seem to have pegged him correctly. His third film, Chappie, fills the exact same mold as its two predecessors, revealing Blomkamp to be in possession of cinema's most narrow playbook.

Chappie sets out to be Robot Gangster Number One in Neill Blomkamp's "Chappie."

Chappie returns Blomkamp to Johannesburg,
where he was born and raised and where District 9 was set and partially shot. In the very near future, South Africa has devised the use of robotic police officers, an invention that has proved effective on combating crime while generating lots of profit for the technology company that manufactures them.

We open with a couple of low-level gangsters in a bind. The absurdly fashioned Ninja and Yolandi (Watkin Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord) find themselves owing a formidable kingpin (Brandon Auret, who is oddly and unnecessarily subtitled) "20 million." Their plan to erase that debt involves abducting Deon Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel), the inventor of the robo-cops.

Turns out Ninja, Yolandi, and their American pal "Amerika" (Jose Pablo Cantillo) pick the right moment to nab Deon. They catch him in a company van along with a damaged robot that was scheduled to be destroyed. After being rejected by his boss (Sigourney Weaver, still enjoying the perks of being a sci-fi icon) over "red tape" concerns, Deon takes it upon himself to use this robot to test out the artificial intelligence program he has been tirelessly working on at home. After "consciousness.dat" is uploaded, the former police robot becomes a sentient newborn, with a capacity for speedy learning far beyond mankind's.

Yolandi names him Chappie, as her maternal instincts emerge in full force. The less patient, gun-toting, grill-toothed Ninja is eager to teach Chappie (who is voiced, robotically, and motion capture performed by Blomkamp's good luck charm Sharlto Copley) how to be bad, something he'll need to know to get the thugs the money they owe. Ninja fits Chappie with gold chains and tattoos, then teaches him how to overcome his innate aversion to harming others, duping him into stealing cars and even hurting the defenseless.

Meanwhile, another individual with terrible hair -- Deon's Australian workmate Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) -- discovers Deon's secret extracurricular activity with Chappie and sees it as an opportunity to test out the flight-capable military robot he's been developing to some resistance.

Hugh Jackman sports an unfortunate mullet in "Chappie" and he's not the only one.

It is bizarre and painful to observe how in a span of six years and just three films, Blomkamp has devolved from a deserving Best Picture nominee to a film that feels unworthy of theatrical release all the while sticking with the same themes, tone, and texture. The director flirts with the cinéma vérité of District 9 at the beginning, with documentary and news show footage (partly hosted by Anderson Cooper) functioning as pre-requisite exposition. That format is soon set aside for another gritty, explosive slum tale with obvious allegorical value. Actually, as allegory,
Chappie fails. District 9 turned alien-human relations into a metaphor for Apartheid racial prejudices. Elysium used a utopia to contemplate inequality in wealth and health care. Compared to those, Chappie comes up lacking, offering nothing more significant than some fleeting, incomplete thoughts on human nature.

The human characters of the film are universally unappealing. The titular hero, who is introduced much later than you'd like him to be, doesn't fare all that much better, his puppy-like unveiling soon giving way to an emulation of Ninja complete with swagger and nose rubs. I gather we are supposed to sympathize with Ninja and Yolandi, outcast outlaws driven by desperation. But there isn't much to sell us on this couple Chappie calls "Mommy" and "Daddy." Mommy at least reads the robot a bedtime story and tells him about souls and the afterlife. Daddy just wants him to jack cars, get money, and be "Robot Gangster Number One." Deon, "Maker" to Chappie, drifts in and out of the picture, his intentions seemingly noble and his haircut not cringe-worthy. The plot is too muddled and meandering to hook us on his angle either. His adversary, Vincent, is as poorly motivated as screen villains get. Certain story developments recall last year's much-bemoaned Transcendence (a film much better than this one).

Facets that were mildly concerning on Blomkamp's first two films have become downright problematic here. The director has always summoned more excitement for action and violence than he is able to generate for the viewer. When teemed with the originality of District 9, I hardly minded. On Elysium, it was a little more disappointing that the movie kind of fell apart at its end with overlong battles. Here on Chappie, there is no greater good to grab your attention, so the various flaws are glaring. Another shortcoming is the sheer lack of subtlety to Blomkamp's social commentary. With each film, his grip of understatement has loosened. It'd be tempting to credit co-writer Terri Tatchell for District 9's grace, but after merely receiving special thanks on Elysium, she shares script credit (and, therefore, blame) with the director, her husband. Repeatedly, their latest effort abandons realism, logic, and coherency to make cheap, fruitless plays for sympathy.

While this may seem like overreaction to a single misfire following two highly praised films, Chappie is a big enough disappointment for me to express lament over the progression of Blomkamp's career. That fresh, unique voice who emerged six years ago is proving to not have all that much to say. For now at least, he just seems to be saying the same things again and again with minor differences.

Robot inventor Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) gives former scout Chappie a mind of his own using an artificial intelligence program.

District 9 was his calling card, a display of what he could do with some money and his imagination. Elysium was his follow-up, a demonstration that he could make a similarly pleasing but no more commercially sound movie with a lot more money and American actors of renown. Chappie, whose budget is less than half of Elysium's, strikes me as his Lady in the Water, a movie that frustrates and gets people to turn on him. I may be wrong, but I can't see anyone, from sci-fi buffs to action junkies to tech geeks, really getting on board with this overly familiar outing that borders on self-parody.

The problems of a limited palette and tiresome, regurgitative writing may not resurface in Blomkamp's next film: a thus-untitled fifth Alien movie due in 2017 that will reunite him with Weaver. There are reasons to fear that revival, including the fact that it follows a twenty-year hiatus and even acclaimed directors like David Fincher and Amélie's Jean-Pierre Jeunet were, early in their careers, unable to live up to the enjoyable first two films helmed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Pre-Chappie, I'd have been excited for Blomkamp to land the gig. Post-Chappie, I fear I may never again love or look forward to another Neill Blomkamp film.

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp: District 9Elysium
Hugh Jackman: Real SteelPrisonersThe Prestige | Sharlto Copley: Maleficent
Dev Patel: The Newsroom: Season 1 | Sigourney Weaver: The Cabin in the WoodsGalaxy QuestAvatarThe Village
Robots and Sci-Fi: AutomataWALL•ETranscendence2001: A Space OdysseyThe Black Hole

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Reviewed March 6, 2015.

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