Humanity’s last hope may not be human as the poster to Neill Blomkamp’s latest dramatically implies, but it also isn’t any good.
Instead, Chappie is a mess; a further misguided step backwards in what was once a career full of real promise for its writer-director.
In promoting the film, Blomkamp has taken the admirably honest approach of conceding that he “f**ked up” his previous picture Elysium (2013) by not having developed a strong enough narrative and script out of what was a promising concept.
The same charge can also be levelled at Chappie; an intriguing idea crippled by a shoddy script and a tone that drunkenly veers between family friendly cutesiness and over-the-top sweary violence; usually involving a pair of ridiculous cartoon gangstas played by South African rappers Die Antwoord.
Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg for this near-future parable in which robots have been purchased from multi-national weapons manufacturer Tetravaal by the police to help restore order to the streets. Their creator Deon (Dev Patel) goes one better and develops the world’s first artificial intelligence, which he installs into a terminally damaged droid he’s stolen from his employers. However, the ‘bot is droid-napped by street thugs who want to use it to help them pull a heist, but don’t count on forming an emotional attachment to the sentient cyborg, which they name Chappie.
The social awareness that gave Blomkamp’s 2009 debut District 9 and the first half of Elysium its edge is nowhere to be seen here; rather the film paints with broad strokes (weapons manufacturers are bad and only care about money, in case you may have suspected otherwise) and lacks the satirical edge of his previous work.
Sections of the film simply make no sense, such as how on earth Deon is able to smuggle both a droid and the all-important ‘guard key’ out of a (supposedly) highly secure weapons firm without being spotted, and for it to take several days before someone finally realises it’s gone.
Likewise, it’s not clear exactly what Tetravaal employee Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, great hair) is doing at the company bearing in mind his attack robot ‘the MOOSE’ (a shameless homage to ED-209 from RoboCop, to which Chappie owes a huge debt) has been sidelined by the firm’s CEO (Sigourney Weaver, looking lost). He also strolls around the office with a gun, which one imagines would contravene health and safety guidelines.
The character of Chappie itself is vividly realised by Weta Digital and the motion capture blends seamlessly into the environment. Unfortunately, Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley delivers an exaggerated performance in the mo-cap suit that soon becomes annoying.
However, it’s not nearly as aggravating as the turns put in by Ninja and Yolandi Visser as Chappie’s street outlaw ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. Resembling rejects from Mad Max, both (Ninja especially) are desperately out of their depth and struggle to register a single convincing emotion between them. A moment towards the end with Ninja on his knees, arms outstretched and screaming in anger (in slow motion no less), is already a low point in 2015 cinema.
The wooden spoon is reserved, though, for Brandon Auret, whose ludicrous performance as crimelord Hippo is so bad it’s almost passable. Served with awful dialogue (which is subtitled even though it’s perfectly understandable), Auret’s wild-eyed gurning provides the biggest laughs as he roars, on more than one occasion, “I want EVERYTHING!”.
A mess from start to finish, Chappie adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Blomkamp is nothing more than a one-trick pony.