South African director Neill Blomkamp’s latest riff on man versus machine (versus man-machine) does not compute.
The biggest problem with Chappie is that it resembles three completely different movies.
The first, and most obvious, is RoboCop—the good one. Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) once again sets the action in his native Johannesburg, South Africa, where the poorest areas of Soweto don’t need CGI to look dystopic. The violent crime rate needs no exaggeration, either. Perhaps that’s why Chappie occurs in a time so close to our own that Anderson Cooper plays himself. From the outset, we’re introduced to an army of drone soldiers programmed by independent defense contractors to police mostly benign citizens like it’s a foregone conclusion. To the residents of “murder capital” Detroit, circa 1987, the technology featured in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop must have seemed impossibly distant, but to viewers of last year’s neutered RoboCop remake, or the confounding Chappie (which is not likely to escape a single review without an unfavorable comparison), police drones are a current public policy issue. Yet neither Chappie nor the Robocop reboot even attempt the kind of social commentary Verhoeven managed to invoke while inspiring a line of action figures and a Saturday morning cartoon. Even more troubling, Chappie features the central conflict of Robocop—the human-controlled technology of Officer Murphy in the RoboCop suit versus the monstrous ED-209 enforcement droid—and reverses it. Though we still get a humanoid protagonist in the form of Chappie (Sharlto Copley), a damaged police “Scout” droid reprogrammed by “Maker” Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) to think and feel pitted against a CGI heavy of the ED-209 variety, the twist here is that the bad bot’s the one with a man at the controls: Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), to be specific, a khaki-shorts-sporting, pistol-packing, mullet-headed defense contractor. If there’s a moral to be had here, it’s a bleak one.
A promotional shot from Short Circuit 2
While Chappie will suffer from comparisons to 1987’s Robocop, it’s really closer in spirit to 1986’s Short Circuit, another film featuring defense contractors building weaponized robots as the major, strangely humorous, plot point. Like Short Circuit’s Johnny Five, Chappie is a robot designed to kill who, upon gaining sentience, is significantly less concerned with the moral ramifications of his intended purpose than in preventing his own termination. Unlike Johnny Five, who came alive with a single lightning bolt, Chappie’s inner light only ignites at the end of a half hour of un-cinematic computer coding and corporate subterfuge. It’s enough to make you long for the stupid simplicity of the lightning bolt, which ultimately has about the same amount of value to the viewer. Once Chappie’s had his OS upgraded into sentience, his high-capacity brain is as malleable as an infant’s, and, much like Johnny Five in Short Circuit 2, his fragile sense of self is at risk of permanent warping at the hands of a gang of criminals through a series of events not worth recounting here. In both movies this dilemma is played for yuks. In place of Short Circuit 2’s Los Locos, Chappie’s would-be mentors are Afrikaan gangsters Ninja and Yo-Landi (members of the controversial South African “zef rap” group Die Antwoord , playing toned-down versions of their musical personas) who deck Chappie out in gold chains and stenciled spray-paint facsimiles of their own ridiculous tattoos. Ugh.
But the film Chappie will most suffer from comparisons to doesn’t even exist. It’s the film Chappie might have been, the one we still expect from Blomkamp and his wife/writing partner Terri Tatchell, who gave us 2009’s thrilling and subversive antidiscrimination vehicle District 9. Even though the timing for an action film centered around private defense contractors and law-enforcement drones couldn’t be better, Chappie fails to make even a moderately thought-provoking point. It’s a shame, especially considering the promise of “Tetra Vaal,” (above) the 80-second short film Blomkamp made in 2004. In it, the robot police force is appropriately menacing and clearly being used to patrol the poor, none of whom appear to be committing crimes, in an effort to make the wealthy feel safer. In Chappie’s heightened B-movie wasteland, the world seems beyond Thunderdome, too violent for namby-pamby moralizing. It’s the perfect setting for a showdown between a robot and a jacked-up man-machine, but, then again, so was Detroit in the ‘80s.