It’s questionable what Neill Blomkamp was thinking when he came up with the idea of directing a movie about a childlike robot that becomes a gangster. A film, which floats between a PG and an R-rated drama, cobbling bits from films “E.T.,” “Robocop” and “Short Circuit,” “Chappie” is disappointing.
In yet another futuristic film, Blomkamp returns to his hometown of Johannesburg, the setting for his breakthrough film, “District 9” to bring us a drama about a robot that can think and feel for itself. Set in the future, the crime-ridden city of Jo’burg is now patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force called droids.
The film begins with several news reports (CNN’s Anderson Cooper makes an appearance here) and interviews with scientists and observers in South Africa, each of whom are talking about Chappie, the central character. It then cuts to 18 months earlier and introduces us to Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) a nerdy engineer who is working on creating the world’s first indestructible robot who can not only think, but create, paint and recite poetry. Unfortunately for Deon, there’s another engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who would like his own creation ‘The Moose’ on the forefront, and two gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (actually played by Ninja and Yolandi Visser from the South African rap duo Die Antwoord), who have a 20 million debt to a cocaine drug lord. When the gangsters kidnap Deon, he trades his release with Chappie, a child like robot, who he says can be utilized for their own purposes once trained. The cartoon-watching piece of metal is soon adopted by the motley duo. Calling his captives mommy and daddy, he is shown how to car jack, shoot, rob stores and jive talk while being prepped to pull off a major heist.
It’s hard to overlook its numerous deficiencies and there are plenty of bones to pick with “Chappie” for Blomkamp’s shifts to obvious fiction is jarring. In one scene, Chappie perches on a stool and paints on a canvas. In another lunatic sequence Yolandi becomes angry and tries in vain to protect him from harm. “He’s just a child!” she screams while cuddling the metal hunk, “Don’t hurt him!” In a third, she reads him bedtime stories. The one about the black sheep happens to be Chappie’s favorite. Sigourney Weaver makes a few appearances as the engineering corporate overlord and Sharlto Copley plays Chappie.
For those seeking action, there’s enough to satisfy with freeway chases and shootouts as Blomkamp collaborated closely with stunt coordinator Grant Hulley, who served in a similar capacity on “District 9.”
A film which begs the philosophical question; ‘can a robot ultimately replace a human?’ “Chappie” remains largely a noisy action picture, barely different from all the other action stuff being churned out. With a possible sequel, we are likely to see much more of this soul-searching piece of metal in the not too distant future.
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