Writer/director Neill Blomkamp has a pretty low opinion of humanity. At least that is a fair assumption based on his three feature films “District 9,” “Elysium” and now “Chappie.”
What makes this stance problematic is that, especially with this latest film, it becomes really hard to find any humans to identify with.
The first thing we should get out of the way is Blomkamp is a technological wizard. No director working today integrates digital special effects so seamlessly into his films the way he does.
From insect-like aliens to slang-talking droids, Blomkamp’s creations are more life-like than most actors and make Jar Jar Binks look like a sock puppet.
While this mechanized approach blended perfectly with sci-fi-allegory in his first two films (although I’ll grant you “Elysium” was a little too on the nose), with “Chappie,” Blomkamp doesn’t have a lot to say, which leaves us with a movie that is all shell and no heart.
The movie is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the not-too-distant future where an army of police droids keep the peace.
In what comes off as a clumsy mashup of “Short Circuit” and “Robocop,” one of the droids becomes sentient with a little help from Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the engineer who designed the police droids.
Since his heartless corporation has no use for artificially intelligent droids, Deon’s ambitions are dismissed by his boss Michelle Bradley (a criminally underused Sigourney Weaver).
Deon decides to take matters into his own hands, swipes a droid slated for the scrapheap, and heads offsite to deliver the spark of life.
Unfortunately, Deon is almost immediately abducted by a group of low-level street thugs named Ninja, Yolandi (who are both members of a South African rap group and are aptly named Ninja and Yolandi), and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) who are looking for a way to circumvent the police droids. They come to a mutual agreement where the trio of criminals will keep the droid if they let Deon download his AI software to it.
Thus, Chappie is born. Chappie is performed via motion capture (a la Andy Serkis) by Sharlto Copley. Chappie is a sweet, child-like soul who is indoctrinated into the thug life by his mentors.
Complicating matters for Deon back at the office is rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who has his own, massive police droid (and somewhere ED-209 fires his agent) that he feels should be patrolling the streets of Johannesburg. Jackman is kind of awesome here playing an Australian redneck sporting a mullet, cargo shorts, and an open-carry sidearm at his cubicle job.
Since all these people are deplorable (with the exception of Deon, who is more of a weenie), Chappie doesn’t have anyone to aspire to or fight for. I understand this is probably the point of the movie, but Chappie becomes more pitiful than anything else and when our little robot finally does find himself the movie mashes up cutesiness with ultraviolence — which makes for a clunky combination.
The plot and logic holes begin to widen and by the end of the movie when the day is saved by a bunch of stolen PS4s and a helmet that detects brainwaves, there’s not much left to do but sit and hope Johnny Five rolls by for a cameo.
“Chappie” is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity.