Like a baby, Chappie has lots of elementary ideas and notions of creativity but it cannot execute any of them like an adult. As such it only knows how to copy.
It’s a rated R movie that feels directly and purposefully made for and marketed to kids. And that’s about the only true direction that I can actually ascertain from the film. First it’s RoboCop (the remake), then it’s the beginning of Spring Breakers, then it’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then it’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, then it’s Goodfellas, then it’s The Dark Knight Rises, then it’s…well then it’s a mess. Over plotting is one thing but the film keeps changing character perspectives to drive its own plot and Chappie itself only gets to do that once the final act starts.
I’m willing to credit the film with some good ideas. The first thing you see is a glimpse of the post-Chappie world where the news is talking about a robot program gone horribly wrong. Then the story begins with the South African police not only fully militarized but robotized. Ruthlessly effective but for one of its units that appears to be cursed, they take down a gang of thugs at their hideout. You figure this is going to be the central thrust of the film.
Yet after that, the red flags start popping up everywhere. After barely escaping, three of those criminals (two of them being actual members of Die Antwoord) come up with the ingenious idea of kidnapping the creator of the robots (Dev Patel) to get him to (and I kid you not) “shut the robots down via remote” so they can get away with pulling off a heist that will allow them to pay off their debts and leave the city. Unbeknownst to them, this creator has just miraculously finished his next big landmark achievement, writing the program for an A.I. that can think and feel like a human. But the corporation that created his security/police robots won’t hear any of it so he steals that bad luck bot before it’s destroyed to test it. Die Antwoord intercepts him on his way home and get him to activate it at their hideout. The program works and turns the robot into Chappie, who has the fear of an infant but the capacity to learn like…well also an infant.
That all takes place in about the first twenty minutes of the film but you can already see the problem. Whereas the film starts out wearing RoboCop’s colors (it even shows off a giant robot that looks exactly like Neill Blomkamp’s conception of ED-209 and it’s so nakedly obvious that it’s going to be the big bad boss fight of the film), it then turns into a kids movie about the virtue of nurtured parenting. Then the story contorts itself into an anti-bullying message. It’s just one new attempt at storytelling after another and none of it coheres with anything else.
Dev Patel does his admirable best to be the loving dad and Yolandi Visser demonstrates some pretty decent acting chops, and while you see them do a lot for and with Chappie, you rarely get the sense that their characters are meant to shape him and his virtues as much as the bad guys are. For the longest time Chappie refuses to take part of a heist because it’s a crime. But the only thing he was taught that comes close to that is “don’t partake in their lifestyle of crime” from his father. Yet he totally does in all but that one thing. Meanwhile Dev Patel’s relationship with the criminals is nothing short of confusing. He begrudgingly helps them for Chappie’s sake but they go from nearly killing him to ignoring him to him threatening to kill them to…best friends?
Things especially fall apart near the end. The big action scene starts out fun but it overplays its hand too quickly and then acts like it needs to keep going before finally triggering the end blow that we do nothing but wait impatiently for. Chappie enacts the kind of robot vengeance you’d think the film might want to use against the fascistic system on only one person and it’s beyond flat. And only after does the film salvage what little it has left for an ending that would actually be pretty good if the film were about that to begin with.
There are moments elsewhere that are beyond stupid. One character gets subtitles for every word despite speaking English and not even having the strongest South African accent of the film. Hugh Jackman’s character grows more and more cartoonish over the film and you have to wonder just how he’s able to keep his job. In fact, you have to wonder just what that company’s security policy is that allows characters to infiltrate it time and time again without even looking twice.
Chappie doesn’t work and it really does function like the robot itself, as a misdirected child. In some ways that can be forgiven; there are moments where both the film and character present an innocence that you just know the kids will love. But the full picture just doesn’t have the stuff it should and we can only blame Director Neill Blomkamp for his most incompetent narration job since…well his last movie.
The Good: The look, the bling, Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Yolandi Visser, and the Johannesburg setting (Chappie will endear itself to South African audiences a lot more than American ones).
The Bad: Basically everything else.
The Bottom Line: Skip it.