It might seem almost paradoxical, but I found myself quite taken by the bulk of the film “Chappie” despite the fact that honestly… it’s a pretty wonky film when viewed as a whole. Director Neill Blomkamp’s tale of artificial intelligence and criminal corruption was a peculiar release in 2015 that garnered a generally mixed response from both critics and audiences alike. Some applauded it for asking big questions and delving into a classic morality tale of what constitutes life and purpose. Others despised it for its unlikable characters and messy narrative structure. And me? Well, I’m somewhere in the middle. Able to recognize and condemn its faults while still finding great value in the elements and aspects of the story that do work.
In the not too distant future, robotics and programming expert Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has helped to create the “Scouts”- robotic police androids that are licensed out to help take back the streets of Johannesburg from criminals and gangsters. One day, Deon secretly steals a damaged Scout body to use as a guinea-pig for an Artificial Intelligence experiment… only to be kidnapped by a group of common street-thugs (Ninja and Yolandi of the rap-group “Die Antwoord”, Jose Pablo Cantillo) who wish to use the robot to pull heists and make dirty money. Dubbed “Chappie”, the “newborn” AI operates on the same level as a young child, and is pulled between his decent creator and his violent “adoptive family.” At the same time, Deon’s work rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) learns of Chappie’s existence and, viewing him as an ungodly creation, vows to destroy him along with the other Scouts in order to push forward his own robotic-police units…
In many ways, “Chappie” is a frustrating watch because it’s almost a great film… but it’s not quite there. It’s an almost perfect inversion of that old saying “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” All of the individual elements at play in “Chappie” are engrossing, compelling and incredibly enjoyable. But it doesn’t exactly come together. The film’s biggest fault is the fact that the writing feels rushed and patched together- like Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell had a lot of brilliant ideas for different parts of the story, but couldn’t quite fit them together and rushed into production without a completed script. The pacing is weird, there’s some bizarre inconsistencies in the structure, and just a few too many moments of convenience and coincidence. It needed another draft, plain and simple.
And that should be the kiss of death… but it’s not. Because everything else works so well, that I found myself very willing to forgive the troubled writing and shaky foundation. The story has some clever ideas and heady themes that I found fascinating, and I loved the fact that Blomkamp and Tatchell allow the movie to operate in a morally grey zone- they raise questions, but often leave the answers up to the audience’s interpretation. As always, Blomkamp’s visual direction is a phenomena, and his sense of scope, composition and color is just awe-inspiring. His films always have a unique balance between gritty realism and melodramatic hyper-reality, and he nails that in “Chappie” in the best of ways. And I found all of the characters quite compelling in their own ways. Heck, you might very well find yourself growing attached to the robotic Chappie and the criminals who are “raising” him more than the other, much more human and humane characters.
This is aided by surprisingly solid performances from basically involved. Patel is a joy as always, and it’s great seeing him on- screen once again. Jackman is a delightfully slimy villain who seems to be having a blast chewing the scenery. And heck… I even though Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord did pretty darned good. Particularly Yolandi, whom grows close to Chappie and begins to mother and nurture him in a genuinely loving way- forming the film’s strongest emotional through-line. But of course, the incredible Sharlto Copley shines through as the voice of the titular Chappie. Copley might not be a household name, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite actors working today with his incredible turns in films including Blomkamp’s own “District 9” and the underrated “A-Team” feature film. And his wondrous and childlike take on the character of Chappie is another strong win for Copley.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this. “Chappie” is almost a great film. But it’s not. It’s messy. It’s uneven. And it has a ton of problems. And yet… I feel that it does enough right to be worth checking out. It has interesting themes, plenty of entertainment value, a beautiful scope and fine performances. And to me, that makes up for most of the problems I have with the shoddy writing.
7 out of 10 stars