Here’s the problem with reaching the top: The only place left to go is down. Thus appears to be the lot in life for Neill Blomkamp, the visionary South African born filmmaker who made the most high-flying of debuts with the “fooking prawns” of District 9 a few years ago. His followup, Elysium, with its subtle-as-cancer soapboxing and paper-thin characters, was not as well received despite boasting some arresting visuals and comprehensive world-building (and of course, that rendition of Jan Pierewiet!).

And unfortunately, Blomkamp’s latest effort once again sees a masterly technical performance hamstrung by a poor script, as he commits some of the same mistakes again. To paraphrase a surly Portugese fish shop owner who always refused to give my colleague Darryn coins after he had paid for goods as a kid, and instead insisted on him taking chewing gum as recompense: “No change. Just Chappie!“.

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In an effort to curb violent crime in a near-future Johannesburg, the police force make use of humanoid law enforcement robots provided by Tetravaal. When one of these “scout” robots gets damaged in an explosive altercation, their idealistic designer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) seizes the opportunity – against the wishes of his bottom-line focused boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) – to upload a new experimental AI consciousness that he’s developed into the nearly-dead robot chassis. Before he can do so though, he’s kidnapped – half-demolished robot in tow – by bumbling cartoon outlaws Ninja and Yolandi (rap-rave duo Die Antwoord playing quasi versions of themselves) and their compatriot America (Jose Pablo Cantillo). The outlandish thugs want Deon to shut down all the scouts remotely so that they can successfully pull off a big heist to settle their debt with nightmarish local gang boss Hippo (Brandon Auret). When Deon reveals that the scouts can’t be shut down, the duo force him to revive the broken robot with the new AI consciousness so that they can use it fight for them.

Given the name of Chappie by Yolandi, the newly sentient robot emerges with infant-like innocence and wonder. But that all changes rapidly as Ninja kicks Deon out – not before Deon gets Chappie to promise to do “no crimes” – and insists on teaching the robot himself. Soon, despite Yolandi’s surprisingly charming surrogate mother display, Chappie is a blinged out, shuriken throwing “robot gangster number one!” much to Deon’s dismay. And also to the disgust of aggressively mulleted Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a rival engineer at Tetravaal who feels that his own human-piloted mech, the gigantic over-weaponized MOOSE, is being marginalized in favour of Deon’s scouts. When he discovers Chappie to be sentient, he considers it an abomination and sets events into motion to take it down and have his own MOOSE shoved into the spotlight.

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On paper (well, LCD screen), that actually appears to be a half-decent sci-fi action romp. Except for the fact that what Blomkamp and his writing partner and wife Terri Tatchell have produced here is essentially just the derivative Zef-accented lovechild of Short Circuit and Robocop (Kort Circuit, anyone?). Now it must be said that not every movie idea needs to be a one-of-a-kind piece of narrative. Some derivation is certainly allowed if those borrowed ideas can be used to say something new. Unfortunately though, Chappie really brings nothing fresh to this allegorical table, rehashing the same themes of consciousness, humanity and nature vs nurture, and even going so far as to copy elements from District 9.

Now once again it must be said, copying ideas is easily forgiveable if it at least produces enough flashy distractions to gawk at (go, reptilian brains!), and here Blomkamp definitely excels. Brought to amazing realistic life through the motion-capture and child-like voice-acting of Sharlto Copley, Chappie is simply a marvel to behold – and often quite hilarious – as Blomkamp once again proves his almost peerless mastery of seamlessly blending digital creations and practical, visceral action. These visuals are flawless and especially impressive in the film’s big blow-out action sequences where the young director has a clear and fantastic flair for seriously exciting R-rated sci-fi violence (also making me wish that the film actually boasted more than just the two major action beats we get here).

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Unfortunately the same cannot be said as a whole in front of the camera, as Yolandi and Ninja painfully flub lines and undersell scenes with a level of acting usually seen from high school theatre production hopefuls. Blomkamp and Tatchell’s script already boasts some cringe-worthy dialogue and really silly plot points, but these are accentuated even further by the pair’s amateur showings.

Not that the rest of the cast fares much better, as Weaver is stuck in default movie CEO mode while Cantillo does a low-budget Carlos Mencia impersonation and Dev Patel essentially plays Dev Patel from Newsroom, only sweatier. Jackman and Auret, as the film’s two proper baddies, at least get to have some fun with things, snarling it up on cue. And besides, who wouldn’t want to see Wolverine decked out in the traditional Afrikaner uniform of two-tone shirt, khaki kort broek en ‘n paar lank sokkies piloting a 12-foot tall flying mech loaded with things that make people go boom and splat?!

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And it’s these explosively cool, geek out moments produced with such expert technical polish, coupled with Copley’s fantastic motion-capture work and the VFX hocus pocus that brings it all to vivid life, that act as Chappie‘s saving grace. Blomkamp is an immensely talented director, of that there is no doubt, but I think he needs to start leaving the screenwriting to somebody with a better grasp of narrative and character. Also, pro tip: Don’t hire non-actors for your sci-fi movie just because they look like they low-budget sci-fi movie extras in real life.

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Last Updated: March 13, 2015


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