Movies

TR Review: Frustrating, Moving Chappie Is Engaging Despite Itself

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Not overcompensating or anything.

It would be all too easy and glib to write “Crappie” and be done with it, as I imagine many other writers will. And the truth is that if you only watch the first twenty minutes of the movie and then walk out in the same kind of rage that I felt initially, I can understand and sympathize. The bald-faced thievery from RoboCop – young inventor (Dev Patel) has a humanoid robot cop design that will learn how to think, while his older, more evil rival (Hugh Jackman, unusually mediocre) has a flying ED-209 that nobody wants – is more than just an influence, and it cements the notion that director Neill Blomkamp has little more on the mind than liking stuff that’s cool.

But then a funny thing happened – I started to like the movie I was watching. And I’m not sure if that’s because Blomkamp got a hold of himself, or because everyone else involved pulled together in spite of the director’s attempts to fuck it up.

How the robot who comes to be known as Chappie comes to life isn’t delved into much – his creator Deon (Patel) simply writes a program that can make it happen, and despite being told not to do it, he uploads it into a robot body that’s supposed to be junked and only has five days of battery power left anyway. But a wrench gets thrown into things when he’s kidnapped by two bizarre, deranged thugs (Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er of rave-rap band Die Antwoord) who desperately need to pay off a $20 million debt in seven days.

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These two are an interesting duo, and will probably be the make or break detail for most people. Looking and behaving astonishingly like every post-apocalyptic thug from every ’80s sci-fi movie ever (I’d love to think it’s irony, but they don’t seem to have that level of self-awareness), Die Antwoord wear their own merchandise constantly throughout the film as if this were their own private infomercial, all while behaving not unlike Chappie himself in their apparent inability to understand how human beings are meant to look and behave. The press kit says they’re playing former musicians who fell on hard times, but that implies there was actual thought put into the performances, a thesis for which there is no supporting evidence. Fortunately, Yo-Landi’s ethereal, alien charisma is compelling and Ninja’s brutal oafishness feels 100% authentic despite the cultivated artifice of his appearance. Your mileage may vary…A LOT, if the reactions at my screening were indicative.

With the personality of a child who learns very quickly, and the guardianship of the aforementioned nutcases, Chappie very quickly learns to say things like “What’s up, fuck mother!” Before he can get too gangster, Deon makes him promise, Terminator 2 style, that he won’t kill or commit crimes. Ninja, however, figures out that he can trick the robot by telling him that stab wounds merely make people go “sleepy-sleep” and that the property of others was actually stolen from him and must be re-procured. And then, once Chappie learns the concept of death, the robot swiftly develops an all-too-human sense of self-preservation that can override his morality. Meanwhile, evil inventor Vincent Moore (Jackman), who is also a former soldier and a conservative Christian, because why not, is working on a plan to sabotage the police force so badly that they’ll be forced to seek the help of his oversized battle mech known as the Moose.

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Drop the RoboCop references! You have 20 seconds to comply!

Because the misleading marketing might have led you to believe Chappie is a cute riff on Short Circuit, it might be best to warn you that this is a solidly R-rated movie throughout. Ninja’s arm tattoo of a boy jerking off a giant penis would earn the rating all by itself, as would the profanity on their vehicle’s improbable license plate, but it’s also notable that every major character comes to grievous bodily harm at some point, whether it be due to broken bones or bullets tearing their flesh apart. This is also the type of movie in which gangsters’ lairs all have porn playing on the TV. If there’s a Verhoeven-like level of satire here, I missed it, though a Butt-head-like level of “Things That Make You Go Huh-Huh-Huh” is abundant.

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You can see the masturbation tattoo if you look closely.

What makes the film ultimately work, however, is the central performance by Sharlto Copley as Chappie (motion-capture and audio). The former improv comedian finally delivers again on his District 9 promise after having been wasted in a number of generic roles since: he’s childlike without being insufferably cute, and emotive despite the fact that his face is ever-unseen. You feel his fear when he’s abandoned in the real world, and when he ultimately loses his temper and goes full-Hulk, it’s a gloriously cathartic rage-boner.

Another thing that’s good, although this would technically be called a flaw by most studio executives, is the fact that the story’s throwaways are genuinely that, and don’t all pay off later (unusually, one key moment of payoff is based on a flashback to something we never were shown the first time). In slicker hands, that scene of Chappie watching a He-Man cartoon would have resulted in him later defeating Hugh Jackman by wielding a makeshift Sword of Grayskull, and it would probably have gotten a huge pop from the crowd, as the cartoon-watching scene did. It would also have been a mistake – the equivalent of WWE pushing John Cena too hard.

As I’ve made clear recently, I am not Blomkamp’s biggest fan: Elysium‘s liberal piety was so stifling it made me want to join the Tea Party, and I think his Alien sequel pitch seems astoundingly wrongheaded (Sigourney Weaver appears in a small role in Chappie, and while she’s still beautiful for her age, there’s no way she looks like she’s between early Alien movies). I’m starting to think the reason District 9 was as good as it was is due to the fact that it was half-improvised. At least the official RoboCop remake was about something more than just a robot who’s a cop, even if it was as simplistic as “using drones for war may be a bad idea sometimes.” Chappie is mostly about being cool, with the robot himself a stand-in for the film, and Blomkamp as Die Antwoord, desperately trying to make this child they found into something awesome without quite understanding it.

That can be fascinating to watch, no question. But with more intelligence at work, it could have been a classic.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist