Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman
Neill Blomkamp is a great filmmaker in terms of creating on screen worlds that look lived-in and complete (even if they do all tend to follow the same basic pattern of a society divided into two factions, one of which is in a state of advanced infrastructural decay). This bodes well for his upcoming take on the Alien franchise. What doesn't bode well is the difficulty that Blomkamp seems to have in filling those worlds with coherent and well-thought out ideas. This isn't to say that Blomkamp doesn't have plenty of ideas that he tries to cram into his movies; just that the ideas don't always work and even when they do they can sometimes be problematic (see District 9). In the end, though, the ideas won't matter any way because the third act will push them all aside in its rush to devote all its energy to brainless, cookie cutter action. As the glow fades from Blomkamp's breakthrough film, the weaknesses in his style begin to become clearer, and have never been more so than in the confused muddle that is Chappie.
Set in the near future, Chappie takes place in Johannesburg, where the crime rate has plummeted thanks to the government's purchase of an army of humanoid robots created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), an engineer for the weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, which is run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, underused here). Deon's robots are a huge success, but the attention has created a rival in the form of fellow engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a former solider whose more heavy duty robot design is largely dismissed as being too expensive in comparison to Deon's design. But while Deon's robots have made the company a fortune thanks to their contract with the police, Deon wants to push to project to the next level by creating software which will allow the robots to think and feel. Bradley shuts him down, but Deon is determined to see his project through and takes a robot marked for destruction from the factory so that he can work on it from the safety of his home. Before he can get there, however, he's car jacked by Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a trio of gangsters who need to raise 20 million rand in a week to pay off a debt. Seeing the potential of having their own police robot that they can reprogram for their own ends, they demand that Deon assemble it, which he agrees to do on the condition that he be allowed to return to visit it so that he can "teach" it, as it will have a childlike mentality until it develops and matures.
Yolandi names the robot "Chappie" and sees him as a child and herself as his mother, while Deon tries to take on a fatherly role and tells Chappie that he's his "maker." Battling against their gentle nurturing, however, is Ninja, who is anxious for Chappie to learn how to be a thug so that he can support his criminal activity. To that end, he takes Chappie out and abandons him in a dangerous neighborhood in order to "toughen" him up, resulting in Chappie being attacked and set on fire and then being found by Vincent, who extracts Chappie's guard key and removes one of his arms before Chappie is able to escape and make it back to the hideout, where he's nursed by Yolandi. Though he's deeply traumatized by the experience, Chappie ends up bonded to Ninja by it when Ninja teaches him how to defend himself through martial arts and weapons handling. Soon, Chappie is helping Ninja and Amerika steal cars and going on a crime spree that gets him on the radar of the authorities. With Deon desperate to regain control of Chappie before things spiral any further, Vincent plots to throw the city into chaos in order to force the police to agree to use his robots to restore order - and to allow him to get his long anticipated revenge on Deon.
The effects work of Chappie is solid, particularly in its rendering of Chappie as a childlike creature at once curious and frightened of the world around him. That's praise for Chappie in a technical respect, mind you, not in a narrative one because I don't know that the depiction of Chappie in this manner actually helps the story. Making Chappie suggestive of a child is an easy (perhaps too easy) way to get the audience to empathize with him as a character, but it also limits the amount of depth that the character can take, as the film takes place over a few days and Chappie remains childlike throughout. The depiction is also a bit problematic when you consider the direction that Chappie begins to develop in while under Ninja's influence. Ninja (who is himself depicted as not being the most advanced in terms of intelligence) is white, but his personality and lifestyle are modeled after what might stereotypically be considered hip hop culture, predominantly associated in media with black people, and thus Chappie, infantalized and shown to be in need of a firm guiding hand to put him on the right moral path, is associated with a type of black culture via Ninja, an association which inherently (though, to give Blomkamp the benefit of the doubt, perhaps inadvertently) suggests a commentary on that culture itself as one lacking in terms of intellectual capacity.
Thematically, Chappie never really comes together as Blomkamp's ideas about nature vs. nurture, consciousness, and humanity, among other things, never fully gel with the story that he's telling, and the film generally takes for granted that it's a lot more profound than it actually is. Yet, for all that, the first two thirds of the film are not without its pleasures or strengths and even if Blomkamp isn't truly successful at what he's trying to do on a thematic level, at least he's trying to do something and he's doing it in a way that is visually interesting. In the film's final third a lot of that ends up going out the window, as the story devolves into a lot of breathless action which, even considered in the specific context of the narrative, doesn't make a lot of sense (namely: Vincent gets exactly what he wants - an opportunity to show off what his robot can do - and instead of exploiting that, he makes it his singular mission to do nothing but hunt down and murder Deon and those associated with him; you have to wonder how someone as dumb, impulsive, and short sighted as Vincent managed to build such an effective machine in the first place). My expectations for Chappie were kind of low due to the horrible critical reception it received when it hit theaters, so despite the issues that I had with it, it was actually better than I was expecting and I'm actually surprised at just how low critical opinion of it was. It's not a great movie by any stretch, but it's certainly not so horrible that it deserves scores of 31% on Rotten Tomatoes and 41 on Metacritic.