Two features on from his sparkling 2009 debut District 9 and Neill Blomkamp is still struggling to properly establish himself as the imaginative, visionary talent promised by his first movie. 2013’s Elysium dissolved into a rather limp by-the-numbers action movie and now CHAPPiE, an exploration of what could happen if artificial intelligence suddenly becomes more than just artificial, never finds its feet due to its dizzyingly uneven tone, ghastly supporting characters and a titular robot who really should have been turned into ornamental ashtrays at the earliest possible opportunity.
Blomkamp returns to the Johannesburg stamping ground brought to life so vividly in District 9. In the near future robot droids are the custodians of law and order, and their developer, scientist Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has created a form of artificial intelligence which he’s keen to test on one of the droids. But his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) won’t hear of it and meanwhile rival robot technician Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, who chooses to play most of his scenes wearing horribly unflattering khaki shorts) is frustrated because his giant enforcement robot Moose (think ED-209 from the original RoboCop) is sitting gathering dust. Deon sneaks off with a recently-decommissioned damaged robot but he’s hi-jacked by a bunch of gangsters and forced to reprogramme the robot (renamed Chappie by one of the gangsters because he’s…a cheeky chappie) into a machine they can use to help them pull off robberies so they can pay off a debt to another gangster. Once reprogrammed, Chappie becomes a terrified, petulant, inquisitive child and, to say the least, a bit of a handful.
Technically CHAPPiE is a hugely-impressive achievement. The robot him/itself is realised not by Motion Capture but largely by Copley acting out the role in a bodysuit before being overlaid with the beautifully-detailed robot animation and once again Blomkamp has brought to the screen a gritty, grimy overpopulated Johannesburg riddled with crime, squalor and decay. The visual aesthetic is impeccable but the film stumbles because it’s just so damned noisy and many of its lead characters are either deeply unlikable or just plain unsympathetic.
CHAPPiE himself is, frankly, an absolute pain in the robotic rear. Blomkamp regular Copley’s physical performance as Chappie is wiry and angular but his vocal performance makes the creature so irritating you’ll want to take a screwdriver (or even a blowtorch) to him as soon as he’s up and about and running around screeching and wailing like a three-year-old drowning in a vat of Sunny Delight. Things get worse once he’s press-ganged into service by a bunch of wild-eyed gangsters played by South African rap collective Die Antwoord - specifically lead singer Watkin Tudor Jones (calling himself Ninja) and ‘band‘ member Yo-landi Visser. To call their performances terrible would be to ennoble them and the film’s soundtrack thunders with the cacophonic din of hardcore rap and metal which, to anyone who likes a nice tune where you can hear the words, is the living definition of purgatory.
So CHAPPiE is pretty much on the backfoot from the outset with a lead character you want to hit over the head with a hammer and baddies who are little more than ranting, unbelievable caricatures. It’s left to Dev Patel to struggle to give the film some emotional balance and Hugh Jackman to chew up the scenery as the sneery Moore who finally gets to play with his MOOSE (as it were) in the film’s final act. And it’s the final act where CHAPPiE finally flies (not literally). The action sequences here are frenetic and adrenalised and surprisingly violent and, extraordinarily, the climax even manages to engender some sympathy for CHAPPiE as his unrechargeable battery begins to run out of power and he and Deon race against time to find another robotic host for his artificial consciousness.
In the final analysis, CHAPPiE isn’t totally crappy but it’s just too scrappy for an audience to be happy with its exploration of the nature of AI and - groan - what it means to be human. Beneath all the noise and fury, which presently signify nothing, there’s probably a mature and thought-provoking story waiting to be told but it’s lost in a welter of bad acting, simplistic moralising and a robot star who makes Futurama’s Bender look like a model of sophistication and contemplative restraint. Enjoy Blomkamps’s stylish direction, the awesome FX and the last fifteen minutes; the rest of the film, like Chappie himself, can cheerfully be consigned to the scrapheap.
Special Features: Eight featurettes / Scene deconstruction / Extended scene / Alternate ending / Photo gallery
INFO: CHAPPiE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: NEILL BLOMKAMP / SCREENPLAY: NEILL BLOMKAMP, TERRI TATCHELL / STARRING: SHARLTO COPLEY, DEV PATEL, HUGH JACKMAN, SIGOURNEY WEAVER / RELEASE DATE: JULY 6TH (BLU-RAY), JULY 13TH (DVD)