As a science fiction film that is at once entertaining, affecting and smart, District 9 (2009) was near perfect, and it’s proved to be a tough act to follow even for its own director Neill Blomkamp.
His next feature film Elysium (2013) was epic but flat and in the end, felt like a two-hour long Obamacare ad.
And now we have Chappie – perhaps the most fun and buoyant as compared to its grim, grittier predecessors, but also crippled by a sketchy plot and hyperbolic drama that makes it feel silly at times.
Set in a harsh, futuristic Johannesburg where gang violence is rife and a constant threat to the city’s delicate peace, the police force commissions thousands of “scout” robot officers from a major robotics corporation that manufactures weaponised droids.
Its star engineer Deon (Dev Patel) experiments on the side and eventually finds the key to Artificial Intelligence technology. Unfortunately, he gets kidnapped by a trio of desperate gangsters Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika (real-life South African rap duo Die Antwoord) as he is retrieving the faulty droid.
But Deon manages to persuade them to let him upload the AI data into a scout, which comes to life with the demeanour and thinking skills of an innocent child, but develops its intelligence and capabilities at preternatural speed.
Much to Deon’s chagrin, the gang teaches the droid, which they christen Chappie, the thug life and manipulates it into helping them steal cars and commit robbery.
Also, hot on their heels is Deon’s bitter colleague and rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who waits for any opportunity to get Deon into trouble with their CEO boss lady Michelle (Sigourney Weaver).
If you think that all this sounds familiar, chances are you’ve already seen many films like Chappie. It’s part Pinocchio (1940), part The Iron Giant (1999), part RoboCop (1987), and part Short Circuit (1986).
The stark similarities with the latter two movies are actually a little irritating. You might love it if you’re feeling particularly nostalgic for these retro robot flicks but personally, I’m disappointed because I admire Blomkamp for his ability to craft arresting, original stories.
Just like in District 9 and Elysium, Blomkamp attempts to ground his post-apocalyptic vision of the future in reality by peppering the film with documentary and news clips. Even CNN anchor Anderson Cooper makes a cameo appearance, but I find that this device doesn’t quite work here as the rest of the film is hyperbolic and rather ludicrous.
The South African stars aside, I don’t think Blomkamp got the most out of his Hollywood cast. Dev Patel is, well, being Dev Patel in every single movie you’ve seen him. Sigourney Weaver is sadly underused – her character may have been in charge, but it’s an impotent, forgettable role.
Is it just me, or do you also feel relieved when Hugh Jackman is allowed to speak Australian on film from time to time? Plus, I think it’s great to see him in an antagonistic role.
His disgruntled bogan office bully is deliciously over the top and it’s made even more comical because wardrobe decided to dress him like Steve Irwin: Buttoned down shirt and khaki shorts all the way! He even sports the late wildlife expert’s signature mullet.
In spite of its flaws, Chappie is still pretty fun and funny, especially when Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika try, in their own individual ways, to help the droid adapt to human life with hilarious results. There are also some genuinely touching moments between Chappie and Yolandi, who takes it upon herself to be his “mommy”.
I must admit that I found Chappie quite endearing. Like an excitable child that views everything with fresh eyes, the robot is both silly and poignantly intuitive to the goodness and frailties of our world.
Disappointments aside, I have to keep reminding myself that this is only Blomkamp’s third feature length film, and he has achieved a lot more than others in the little time since he’s broken into the scene.
I’m interested to see how he handles his next project, a fifth Alien movie starring Sigourney Weaver. This huge, studio-controlled franchise may just be his next baptism of fire that he needs!
Chappie is out in cinemas now. Have you seen it? Tell us what you think!