Credit where credit’s due, Neil Blomkamp is inventive enough with his ideas to be able to do something different with an established trope. Into the oeuvre of highly intelligent robots combating their human overseers who want to shut them down, we enter Chappie, a case of Johnny 5 not so much being alive, as he is born and put through an existential storm of crime warfare.
However, as plagued District 9 before it, Blomkamp is a creator of light ideas that don’t support themselves for the run of an entire film. The initial interest generated by the concept peters out and the film is left to devolve into fairly standard fare. In Chappie’s case specifically, the issue is perhaps that there are too many conflicting ideas that interfere with each other, where as delving into one and exploring it – both plotwise and thematically – would have been more beneficial overall.
The concept is that Johannesburg has introduced a robotic police force of “scouts” that have been overwhelmingly successful in assisting police to reduce the rates of crime and established criminal gangs in the city. The scouts’ developer Deon (Dev Patel) is kidnapped by a small gang (led by Die Antwoord, playing odd versions of their outlandish personalities) and forced to program a damaged scout to be at their service, however he programs it with his new AI which enables it to think, feel and learn like a human – the titular Chappie.
The idea is novel, and the execution of Chappie is fantastic, with Sharlto Copley lending a childlike naïveté and tenderness to the advanced AI that quickly endears him as a character, and makes scenes of his battles against the harsh realities of criminal life in Johannesburg very affecting. The juxtaposition of Chappie’s innocence against his gritty surroundings is the movie’s biggest – and perhaps only – strength.
The problem is that the movie tries to do too much – an existential study of what it means to be human with the difference between a soul and a consciousness, the interplay of small gang vs. large gang vs a very efficient police force, the battle between an artistic creator in Deon and the rivalry he faces from a moralistic military man (Hugh Jackman, sporting an awful mullet), and a character study of the dysfunctional “family” Chappie is raised by. The film never adequately explores the ideas presented in these scenarios as it trades off against giving each narrative thread as much time as possible, and it would’ve been a far smarter idea to pick one thread and roll with it deeply, rather than trying to keep too many narrative plates spinning.
Overall it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t better serve its title character, because the potential is there, and he’s a fascinating character in the first two acts, before the film inevitably runs out of narrative steam and devolves into an overplayed shootout. Chappie deserves better than that.