Imagine “Short Circuit” shot with hand held cameras. Or maybe “Bicentennial Man” with better special effects. Or a less politically astute “RoboCop.” No matter how you wire it “Chappie” is a movie that feels like a bucket of nuts and bolts borrowed from other films.
Set next year in Johannesburg, “Chappie” is the story of Scout 22, an “officer” in a droid police force created by arms corporation Tetra Vaal lead designer Deon (Dev Patel). The mechanized cops use ultra-violence to subdue drug dealers, gangsters and other assorted criminal riff raff.
Deon’s creations are a success but he wants his androids to be more than just killing machines. He wants them to think and feel, to write music, appreciate art [and] “have original ideas.”
When Scout 22 is injured in the line of duty, Deon Wilson—counter to Tetra Vaal’s CEO, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) and hardline hardware designer Vincent’s (Hugh Jackman) wishes—scoops up the ‘bot’s broken bits and pieces with the idea of reprogramming him to become sentient. “I brought you into this world. A machine that can think and feel,” says Deon.
Before Deon can create his new synthetically sensitive robot, however, he and the pile of damaged droid parts find themselves held hostage by a trio of gangsters, Yo-Landi, Ninja (Die Antoord’s Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who want Deon to shut off Jo’burg’s robocops so they can roam free and pull off a heist with no police interference.
When the terrified programmer explains there is no off switch for the crime fighters, a plan is hatched to turn Scout 22, now dubbed Chappie (a motion-captured Sharlto Copley), into “Indestructible Robot Gangster Number 1.”
The reprogrammed Chappie is “raised” by his “maker” Deon and the gangsters, with whom he forms a defacto family. From Deon he learns creativity; from Ninja and Co. he finds an appreciation of “Masters of the Universe,” street lingo and bling. While Deon is busy trying to prevent Vince from sabotaging the Scout project, Ninja and Amerika manipulate Chappie into doing the one thing he swore he would never do—break the law.
“Chappie” feels like a kid’s movie; a violent and action packed children’s film. The character has a childlike wonder about the world, and there are several almost Disney-esque moments—but the feel-bad Disney where parents die and defenceless characters are left to fend for themselves. Trouble is none of those moments have the same oomph as “Your mother can’t be with you anymore, Bambi.” For all of Chappie’s childlike innocence there’s nothing particularly endearing about him and without an emotional connection to the main character he is little more than a computer with legs and funny rabbit ears.
Director Neill Blomkamp’s trademarked mix of gritty realism and sleek state-of-the-art CGI are present in “Chappie” but one-note performances—I’m looking at you Ninja!—and a story that feels cobbled together from other, better robot movies makes one wish for more intelligence—artificial or otherwise—in the storytelling.