“Your mother was a snow blower!”.... if that means anything to you then, whether fondly or not, you clearly remember your old 80's living robot pal, Mr Johnny 5. For those that don’t, he was a prototype military robot that after accidentally being struck by lightning developed independent thoughts & feelings (like Ultron with less genocide). His hobbies include hanging out with heavy racial stereotypes, hunting down bad guys to the sounds of Bonnie Tyler, and laughing at Steve Guttenberg’s jokes (yep, this definitely was the 80s). Although neither of his films were critical or box office jackpot, the titular figure was quietly influential over the years in robot character depiction (most notably in Wall-E). So why does this bozo matter? Firstly, because so many of us still can’t get “number 5 is alive” out of our heads; but mostly because whether justified or in jest, the run up to Neil Blomkamp’s latest film has faced an avalanche of comparisons to this 80s forebearer. The phrase “Blomkamp does Short Circuit” being hurled about everywhere like free trails to Amazon Prime. Anyone sitting down to see Chappie will have heard of that labelling. Yet anybody wanting to see that result should get up and run the hell out of the cinema (preferably into a very solid wall). This is not an 80s sci-fi goofball; this is faster, smarter and much more powerful if not without its technical setbacks.
Based on director Blomkamp’s 2004 short, Tetra Vall, a gang of criminals kidnaps a robot designer to build them a new weapon against the heavily effective robot police force. He uploads a new program into a decommissioned droid (Scout 22) turning him into a sentient being capable of being taught anything, known as Chappie. Though some see his existence as a gift others see a dangerous threat.
First up there’s an unexpected change in the 80s movie comparisons as the outlying story is more akin to Robocop. We meet Scout 22 as police officer fatally injured at the hands of a big bad guy before being reborn as Chappie. He even has his own ED-209 to square off against in the inevitable big action finale. This does give welcome sense of familiarity to the Chappie’s near Future South Africa (yes, we’re there again) setting but fails to cover Chappie and indeed Neil Blomkamp’s biggest malfunction. While the central idea and imagination is outstanding, like its titular character, Chappie doesn’t quite understand itself and as such the secondary elements to the story feel haphazardly bolted on. Hugh Jackman’s (X-Men, Prisoners) office jock with a vendetta subplot feels solely present as a source of conflict that really fails to satisfy. He’s just a villain for villain’s sake and even when his big overkill “Moose” drone stops into play the remote piloting boils down to Jackman badly narrating an action sequence. Then there’s Sigourney Weaver’s (Alien, Exodus Gods & Kings) head of OCP/Tetravaal who feels incredibly shallow and like Jackman purely planted as a plot complication without feeling fully integrated to it. It all compiles the same kind misguided story that, for all its good looks, sank Elysium into poor territory (even Blomkamp recently admitted to getting that film wrong); yet thankfully in nowhere near the quantities to keep Chappie being an enjoyable film. You will feel the story going astray particularly in the final act but it has one major ace up its mechanical sleeve. The main focus of a living consciousness growing and learning is so often brilliant that it makes you gloss some smaller faults.
The idea of making Chappie a quickly growing child is both effective on so many levels and gives the film a very unique feel to it. While his timid and confused motions or gangster 101 tutions frequently provides some good comic relief, there’s also a great moral backbone to his character evolution, in both influences on the innocent and the ideas of independent choice. His maker Deon (Dev Patel – Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom) wants him to be a saint. His kidnapping father wants him to be a criminal. His mother wants him to be a free spirit. All three get their chance to impart their teachings but rather than seeing them fight a triple threat over his CPU the best results come from seeing Chappie come to understand concepts like morality and mortality for himself to become the most humane character on screen. In one standout sequence we even see him literally dumped into his first dose of the real world, as he experiences violence and cruelty for the first time. Indeed while parts do feel like a re-tread of Short Circuit 2, like being tricked into crime or the threat of disassembly, the emotion in these moments has evolved just as far as the effects since 1988. So much of it is utterly enthralling thanks to Sharlto Copley (District 9, Maleficent) pulling mo-cap strings of our hero. The words alone wouldn’t sell the child-like concept but his superb mannerisms really do as he constantly appeals to parent figures in a “look what I’ve done” desire for gratification. Or returning home hurt wanting his mother’s arms and favourite book. There’s no shortage of reasons to love him as learns from He-Man or hides doll playing from his dad.
Although the final showdown flops somewhat, the earlier action sequences still provide much to enjoy as we witness the robot integrated police force in action (basically the humans imploring Operation Human Shield). There’s also some great laughs too; the highlight being Chappie “stealing back” his dad’s cars from the naughty people he’s told took them, giving them telling offs all the way. The only final restraining bolt holding Chappie back is a very misadvised venture into the overly meta. His mother and father figure are played by South African rap duo Die Artwood of Ninja and Yolandi with the same names as basically exaggerated criminal versions of their real selves. While the pair look cool and have clearly brought their own style to fictional den like home, beyond the visuals they contribute almost nothing. Yolandi does ok in her maternal role but Ninja in particular is about as likeable as a Disney remake of Akira. All too often he’s annoying in his overacting which makes us feel completely indifferent to his sudden final act change of heart. Guns don’t kill films, bad acting rappers do.
The overall result cements the phrase “typically Blomkamp”. It showcases pure raw genius in genesis but a sad inability to mould it into a finish product without a good chunk spilling onto the floor. The central performance by Copley proves that number 22 is alive and making good enough entertainment for an enjoyable enough genre viewing but will sting with an aftermath of wasted potential. Chappie could have done for robots what Caesar did for Apes but, through no fault of its own, will not receive the same groundbreaking acclaim. Furthermore, when measured against its recent and far more sophisticated rival, Ex Machina, may find itself more redundant than it really should. You’ll want to love this film but it isn’t user friendly enough.
Recommended for all fans of Blomkamp’s first two films, those who found Ex Machina too heavy going and anyone that wished Wall-E was more Bling-E.