By Jacob Solis
Since the days of renowned author Isaac Asimov, robots and their implications have made for fascinating science fiction. However, with robotics reaching ever-higher heights, Asimov’s once far-off future is now right around the corner. Thus comes “Chappie” — a movie about a plucky little robot and what he means for mankind.
“Chappie” has all the makings of a quality, compelling science fiction movie. Unfortunately, a quality, compelling movie “Chappie” is not. In what represents the second stumble in a row for director Neill Blomkamp, the film manages to take an ensemble of exceptional actors and thought-provoking ideas and create a high-minded narrative mess, albeit one complemented by remarkable visuals.
In short, “Chappie” is about a curious robot of that very name. In the protagonist’s world of the near future, the police force of South Africa has taken up robotic arms to fight the torrent of crime, enlisting the help of the Scouts. The Scouts, designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), are lauded both by the public and police alike, much to the chagrin of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman). Moore, a rival engineer whose own gratuitously large and militaristic robot has been put on the backburner by his CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), resents Wilson with an oddly violent passion.
Amid all this, Wilson is unsatisfied with the Scouts and seeks to create a full artificial intelligence. Stealing away a broken Scout slated for destruction, Wilson attempts to complete his magnum opus but is interrupted by his abduction. His kidnappers, three blundering gangsters (played by Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser and Jose Pablo Cantillo) are all too ready to exploit his expertise to foil the Scouts and pull off a heist in broad daylight.
Under the thumb of the clumsy gangsters, Wilson manages to merge software and hardware to create the intelligent Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley). Thus begins a struggle between Wilson, the bumbling trio of ne’er-do-wells and Moore over the future of Chappie the robot and ultimately the future of humankind.
The narrative is easily the most glaring issue in the sci-fi film. After two hours of action, some occasional drama and philosophical waxing and the barest hint of comedy (though that is quite a stretch), the film is wholly unsatisfying.
Over and over “Chappie” contemplates the realities of life and what it means to think and feel. Chappie is a being that feels fear, love and dreads mortality, strangely embodying a humanness that is lacking among many a human being. Even so, the film does nothing with these ideas, opting instead for a disappointing climax that abandons any kind of thematic exploration in favor of a jarring cop-out of an ending.
This is to say nothing of the storytelling and dialogue. A multitude of narrative threads weave among each other, but each is so convoluted that it feels little more than much ado about nothing. Any possible drama is left hanging in the air, tangled and unfinished.
Moreover, the ham-fisted and clumsy dialogue gives the top-billed actors little room to work with. One would be hard-pressed to recall a movie where Sigourney Weaver has looked so detached and disinterested. There was a single moment where a shred of emotion was briefly visible on her face, but the scene is short-lived.
Hugh Jackman, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is so psychotically diabolical in his portrayal of Moore that it’s difficult to remember that Moore is supposed to be a real human being. Perhaps this was Blomkamp’s intention, but it only serves to make the movie even more heavy-handed than it already was.
Dev Patel, of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame, fares slightly better. His bookish and timid Deon Wilson is certainly a normal, well-adjusted man living in the 21st century, but this does little to help the often-tedious dialogue.
While “Chappie” is lacking in many crucial areas, it is certainly not lacking in the visual department. “Stunning” is an appropriate word, though the visuals quickly lose their impact. After a time, it simply becomes a nice dressing for an inedible salad.
Blomkamp’s exceptional 2009 debut “District 9” garnered a fair amount of praise and excitement for a new visionary director who gave a great deal of love and care to the genre of sci-fi dystopia. His sophomore effort, 2013’s “Elysium,” which remained grounded in the idea of dystopia, tempered this excitement some, but by no means was “Elysium” a bad movie.
But now comes “Chappie.” Instead of the originality of “District 9,” audiences are greeted by a disjointed mish-mash of elements from better movies that are strung together by a sub-par story and lackluster acting. While Blompkamp kept up the visual style and grace of his previous films, he has become more hampered than ever by poor writing.
Blomkamp has been tapped to direct the next movie in the “Alien” franchise, so there is still hope that he might recover from this slippery slope. For the time being though, “Chappie” has failed to impress.
Jacob Solis can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.