Film Review: Chappie
US action/sci-fi, 2015, 120 mins; Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman
Premiered march 5, Playing Nationwide
Marking the acting debut of South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord, the visually impressive third feature from Neill Blomkamp (District 9) centres around the imminent evolution of artificial intelligence and its application for law enforcement.
Robocop goes rogue
Like Robocop before it, Chappie envisions a future mired in criminal activity, where a robotic police force represents the only hope for a society (in this case Johannesburg) perpetually on the verge of meltdown.
With crime rates falling, the initiative proves to be a success, but when the programmer behind this successful initiative (Dev Patel – Slumdog Millionaire) develops a new, thinking, feeling, learning AI and instals it inside Chappie, a damaged police robot, Chappie goes rogue and falls into the hands of criminal thugs (Die Antwoord) who intend to use the machine in their forthcoming heist.
They can rap, but can’t act
When the band Die Antwoord exploded onto the scene in 2010, their videos took YouTube by storm. Like some satanic fever dream, their garish aesthetic was an appropriation of tribal art and hip-hop iconography as they sought to push the boundaries of taste and censorship. They released their first album as a free download to critical acclaim.
Originally from South Africa, Ninja (birth name: Watkin Tudor Jones) and Yolandi Visser (birth name: Anri du Toit) are rumoured to have met in art school, adopting various personas before settling on the ones we now recognise. Director Blomkamp clearly holds his stars in the highest regard, with Ninja having supposedly been slated to star in Blomkamp’s previous film, Elysium. I suspect, with his replacement by Matt Damon, we all dodged a bullet.
That’s not to say that Elysium was an artistic success, but Damon was the film’s core strength and next to Chappie, Elysium looks like a masterpiece.
Watch it in … 1D
The one-dimensional characterisation that plagued Elysium, particularly its comic-book villains, is in greater effect here. Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman – who is literally an angry mullet – are woefully underwritten while Ninja and Yolandi, who play the robot’s surrogate parents, keep their stage names and personae, but have been stripped of the alluring dementedness from their videos and granted all the depth of Blue Peter presenters, with Yolandi reduced to repeating asinine lines such as “Mommy loves you Chappie”. Neither Ninja nor Yolandi are revealed to be strong actors, but it doesn’t help that they are given so little to work with.
While there are moments of levity – a sequence in which Ninja tricks a hapless Chappie into car-jacking contains a genuine laugh or two – Chappie is now being touted as a comedy by its distributors. It clearly wasn’t conceived that way, so one can surmise that the film has presented its promoters with a dilemma.
A mess of genres
In truth, Chappie’s emphasis on cute over complexity resembles a family film, aligning it closer with tShort Circuit. However, its well-earned 15 rating will exclude that demographic, at least in theatres. Furthermore, when compared with the sophisticated satire of the similarly rated, gore-soaked Robocop, Chappie fails to deliver on all fronts.
There are some interesting, if derivative, ideas presented here – particularly with reference parenting as programming and immortality through transference of consciousness – but all are dispensed half-heartedly and none of the implications are properly explored. Chappie is artificial alright, but intelligence? Far too little of that.