There are three things worth keeping in mind when considering the new sci-fi/thriller about a futuristic police robot called Chappie from South African director Neill Blomkamp; 1) the film’s title is also the name of South Africa’s most popular bubblegum from Cadburys – it’s been around for more than fifty years; 2) the principal villains who kidnap and, in their oddball way, kind of befriend the robot are members of the country’s most popular rap band, Die Antwoord (meaning, The Answer in Dutch based Afrikaans) and 3) the robot may seem cute on the poster but don’t be fooled – this violent, ‘R’ rated, f-bomb laden thriller is no Short-Circuit or Wall-E, and it’s most definitely not for kids.
In the not too-distant future, with violent crime at an all-time high in South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, the police have turned to a weapons corporation headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) for help. Tetravaal, the name of both the company and the 2004 short upon which this feature length film is based, manufacture all kinds of weaponry, but their most commercially successful product is a metallic police substitute robot that follows orders and never quits. As a result, crime drops, streets are safer and Tetravaal’s financial future is solid. And naturally, all you can think of is Robocop.
The inventor of the bullet proof guard system that now parades Johannesburg’s streets is nerdy Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a young man who spends his nights alone; working on a computer program that creates an actual creative mind which he hopes will eventually be installed into all of his robots. From his point of view, a robot that can think, learn, admire art and even write poetry, needs to be installed into all of his creations. It would develop a new breed of artificial life requiring minimum human input and allow the robots to get on with their tasks for themselves. But when Deon presents his new program to his boss, Michelle, for approval, the woman is less than enthusiastic. “You’ve come to the CEO of a weapons corporation and you bring me a robot that can write poetry?” she asks.
Undeterred, Deon secretly stashes away one of the robots in need of repair, reprograms it with his new thought chip, and voila, Chappie is born. The only problem is, while the chip really does work and Chappie, still is in his baby/learning phase, is proving that a robot really can think for itself – it’s something like Hal 9000 but mobile – there are some really bad guys out there, all of whom at first glance look like cast members from a Mad Max movie, who kidnap the new robot and train it not so much to paint and write poetry but to strut, walk, talk and behave like one of them. Instead of arresting Johannesburg’s underbelly, it joins them, complete with bling and a comical gangsta-rap, street-wise attitude.
The principal conflict, however, comes not from the bad guys attempting to make Chappie one of them but from within the Tetravaal corporation. Hugh Jackman, who really doesn’t look good sporting a mullet, plays rival inventor Vincent Moore, and Vincent has his own, much larger and considerably more clunky and intimidating looking robot he would prefer roamed the streets. When the public discover that Chappie is actually aiding the bad guys in heists and making the head of Tetravaal look bad, Vincent goes to the boss and lobbies for his more lethal looking creation. “You don’t want this to be your legacy,” he tells her, referring to Chappie. The boss agrees and gives the green light to activate Vincent’s more frightening looking robot.
Like director Blomkamp’s previous two films, District 9 and Elysium, Chappie is breath-takingly fast paced. Using similar techniques employed in his previous films, – the setup is presented through TV news reels, clips and comments from TV interviewees – and the fast-paced action with its lightning speed editing, just like those police robots on the streets, the film never quits. The Robocop comparisons are all over the place – how could they not be? – but if the director considers Chappie to be his Robocop homage, it fails; it come across more like a rip.
There’s also the problem of the robot. Like the overall busy style of the film’s visuals, Chappie is a frenetic creation that tries way too hard to be friendly and funny. It doesn’t give us a break; the machine is in constant motion – it’s like a nervous tick that can’t be stopped. The robot’s dialog, supplied by actor Sharlto Copley, is also tough for the American ear. There’s a harsh quality to the sound delivered with an Afrikaaner’s accent that makes Chappie anything but endearing. Frankly, there’s nothing to like.
Production values are exceptionally high – the CGI is seamless and the computer generated robots are practically tangible – but the impact is minimal, not to mention that just at the moment when the film starts to feel interesting, it ends. The quick fade to black suggests a new beginning and, I’m guessing, a potential franchise. Let’s hope not. The bubblegum may have been around for fifty years, but the robot needs to go.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 114 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)