“CHAPPiE” a Charming, if Defective, Model

By Herman Fogus

chappie_ver4In a crime-ridden South Africa that is patrolled by walking robotic drones, a trio of career criminals kidnaps the creator of the drones (Dev Patel) to assist in their last heist.  In the process, they activate a decommissioned police robot that, when given an experimental artificial intelligence by its’ creator, allows it to learn and think like a human…and leave an indelible mark on their lives.

Or…to be more coy…it’s probably best to think of CHAPPiE as a hip-hop infused reboot of Short Circuit.

Neill Blomkamp’s third feature film is somewhat conflicting to watch.  On the one hand, there is a real, genuinely heartwarming story about watching the titular robot – the first of its kind – learning the wonders and pitfalls of the world it (or he, a viewpoint that gradually sinks in as the movie progresses) is surrounded by.  In fact, that is the main draw and the primary reason why the movie works – and that credit is richly earned by Blomkamp favorite Sharlto Copley.

Copley – who voiced and provided motion capture for the largely CGI-created Chappie – infuses the former police drone with a child’s innocence and curiosity.  It is fun and heartwrenching to see Chappie in action, from receiving his first book to experiencing hatred for the first time.  His interactions with both creator Deon Wilson (Patel) and the gang that ends up being his “parents” (South African rap group Die Antwoord and a somewhat-unrecognizable Jose Pablo Cantillo) are, for the most part, delightful to watch.  If a movie was made that consisted solely of these parts, then it would be an honestly wonderful movie to watch.

That said, it’s some of CHAPPiE’s other parts that make this a bumpy ride.

Blomkamp has been known for injecting his movies with strong (and sometimes heavy-handed) doses of social commentary, often centered around issues in his native country of South Africa.  District 9 essentially took the country’s history of apartheid and reframed it with a group of lost aliens in the position of black people, while Elysium used a poverty-ridden and overpopulated Earth and Los Angeles as backdrops for a classic haves-and-have-nots story.

CHAPPiE suggests that viewers should explore the concept of what could make a robot truly human and all of the moral implications that would come from such a thing.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t spend a whole lot of time giving viewers incentive to want to explore that.  Like Elysium did with its’ commentary, Blomkamp opts to place CHAPPiE’s questions in the background of two competing plots – the gang’s desire to use Chappie to assist in their final heist, which will clear their debt to a rival gang, and the conflicts Wilson has with weapons designer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose hatred of artificial intelligence and inability to convince company CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) to use and adopt human-controlled drones with heavier weaponry leads him to desperate extremes.

To the film’s detriment, too much time is spent on these plots, leading to some cringe-worthy moments.  Ninja and Yankie’s attempts to teach Chappie to be “more gangsta” come off as uneven – although there are some funny moments, such as the robot’s destructive first attempt at a carjacking, viewers will end up wishing they would have just left him with Yolandi more often.  As for Moore, his plotline is rather standard, except for one scene that obnoxiously colors who he is and leaves viewers wondering how he can still hold a job; apparently in Blomkamp’s South Africa, it is possible to put a gun to your coworker’s head, call it a joke, and not even get fired.

Despite the uneven story, the acting is rather decent.  Copley’s already been lauded, and Patel is good as Wilson.  The real surprises of the cast are Die Antwoord; neither Ninja nor Yolandi Visser had any acting experience prior to this movie, but even considering that their characters aren’t that far removed from their real-life personas – they even use their stage names as their character names – they perform admirably, with Yolandi getting many of the better scenes with Chappie.  Jackman takes the one-note character of Moore and has fun with it, hamming it up wherever he can; unfortunately, Weaver’s role is essentially an extended cameo, and she doesn’t get to stretch out as much as Jackman does.  And Blomkamp’s directing remains solid; viewers who liked either District 9 or Elysium will find plenty to love here as far as visuals go.

CHAPPiE is a movie that ends up being as much of a misfit as the titular character is.  The charming and heartwarming aspects clash far too much with the dull and uninteresting ones.  Ultimately, the one reason to consider this movie – Chappie himself – is what makes this worth at least one viewing.

CHAPPiE, directed by Neill Blomkamp and distributed by Columbia Pictures, is in theaters now.

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