Chappie is both a technical marvel and a hard-driving, highly emotional film. So much of it works that it’s a shame director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp can’t keep it on track to the very end. Perhaps the biggest difference between it and Blomkamp’s exceptional District 9 is that the earlier film came as a complete surprise, from an unknown South African filmmaker, while this one has a lot to live up to.
Its greatest achievement is the verisimilitude of its visuals: as in District 9, you believe the title character is absolutely real as he interacts with his human costars. (In fact, District 9’s breakout star, Sharlto Copley, performed on-set as Chappie with his fellow actors; then animators painted him out and replaced him with the ultrarealistic droid.)
In the near-future world of Johannesburg, rampant crime has been quelled by robotic cops, manufactured by a local company run by Sigourney Weaver (every young sci-fi filmmaker’s heroine). Engineer Hugh Jackman has built a prototype of a gigantic robot named Moose that could do the work of a squadron, but Weaver won’t OK it. Meanwhile, staffer Dev Patel is experimenting with artificial intelligence, and secretly inserts his test software into a damaged robocop that’s about to be destroyed. With that, Chappie is born. Then Patel is kidnaped by some punk hoodlums, played by Ninja and ¥o-Landi Vi$$er of the South African rap-rave band Die Antwoord. They unexpectedly become Chappie’s “parents,” coaching him to help them pull off a dangerous heist.
Chappie enters the movie as a complete innocent and quickly wins our hearts. At first he’s a child, learning words and concepts, but as the story progresses he becomes more self-aware. He not only has to choose between right and wrong but determine his own fate as an artificial being in a temporary body.
Despite echoes of District 9 and even older films like Short Circuit, Chappie is an impressive piece of work—until Blomkamp goes off the rails in a climax that doesn’t make much sense. He also drags us through the mud, figuratively speaking, depicting the ugliest form of humanity. Talk about a dystopian future! By the end of the film, the scuzzbag guardians seem positively benign alongside the other depraved characters we encounter. The idea of placing a naïve, even lovable creature in the midst of this environment is a risk that doesn’t entirely pay off. But with the geniuses of Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop involved, Chappie convinces us that it could actually happen.