Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) is the closest thing to a cyberpunk filmmaker working today, blending a fascination with emerging technology with a gritty social awareness while asking some uncomfortable philosophical questions.
Unfortunately, his ability to explore that territory has only grown more unfocused over the course of his career to date. With his third feature film, Chappie, his flirtation with the repercussions and responsibilities involved with creating artificial intelligence quickly turns into “Short Circuit meets Robocop in reverse”.
The premise is a well-trod but still viable one; Blomkamp’s execution is a misfire that falls behind the curve. In a nutshell: Deon (Dev Patel), an ambitious programmer working for Tetravaal, a Johannesburg-based robotics company run n by brassy executive Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) that produces the world’s first mechanized police force. Deon is desperate to get his artificial intelligence research field-tested, so much so that he steals the remains of a damaged Scout robot to use as a test subject. On a darker parallel path is his creepy, borderline fascistic co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman, rocking a mullet second only to his thick Afrikaans accent in terms of ill-conceived affectation), who constant badgers Bradley to get his pet-project human-piloted warbots into production.
This plot thread quickly takes a back seat when a gang of thugs led by Ninja and Yolandi (Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord) force Deon to assemble his self-aware droid for them so that they can use it in a heist. Named Chappie by the gang, the robot (played by Sharlto Copley via motion-capture) is titanium-armored child, impressionable and guileless as he absorbs the world around and forms an identity. Unfortunately, the world around him is a sketchy one full of contradictions. Wackiness ensues, capped by a soberingly blood action climax.
Chappie has a lot to offer, and therein lies the problem. Blomkamp throws a ton of ideas into the script: the questions of where consciousness comes from, of what it means to create a life and be responsible for it; the ramifications of using machines to police people; and the social fallout from all of the above. Unfortunately, he fails to pick anything to really focus on, and as a result the movie runs in confused circles for two hours before grinding to a halt with a cop-out ending.
Patel, Jackman, and Weaver are mired in anemic, thankless roles that fail to take advantage of their talents. Jackman is especially left high and dry in a generic villain role that could have been so much more compelling. (It’s hinted that he has anti-AI prejudice stemming from his religious beliefs, an opportunity to explore the spiritual aspects of such technology that goes sadly unexplored.) Ninja and Visser fare better as alternate-reality punk-gangsta versions of themselves, though their characters start to grate over the long haul and probably should have been used more sparingly.
The same could be said for the title character. Copley does a fine job in the role, especially with Chappie’s physicality, but the character is often too cloyingly cute and sentimental to take seriously. His final-act conversion from gentle child into an avenging hero isn’t very convincing, but neither is anything else in the movie. Chappie, both the character and the film itself, is a clunky amalgam of mismatched parts.