Film review: If you've seen 'District 9' or 'Elysium,' you've seen 'Chappie'
"Chappie" (opening in theaters nationwide March 6), the latest film from director Neill Blomkamp ("District 9"), is a frustrating, soulless and heavy-handed AI tale.
In short: A young scientist (Dev Patel) creates a fully sentient AI robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), who is raised and taught by a trio of criminals. But Chappie's very existence goes against the very principles of a rival computer designer (Hugh Jackman) who doesn't trust artificial intelligence. (Watch the trailer)
With three features films from Blomkamp to consider now, the inarguable brilliance of "District 9" is now looking more like the outlier than the norm given the lackluster "Elysium" and the litany of problems that beset "Chappie." His films are getting progressively harder to watch - but even worse - all three appear to follow the same basic formula: protagonist is transformed and epitomizes everything the bloodthirsty villain hates. Explosions and robot-based fighting happen. And throw in some violent thugs with thick South African accents for good measure and now you've got a Blomkamp movie.
Even ignoring Blomkamp's previous films, this AI-based sci-fi flick about a "human" robot ironically lacks much in the way of brains or heart. It begins with the vagueness of exactly what story "Chappie" is trying to tell. Is this about one specific robot's emerging awareness or humanity's reaction to artificial intelligence? Which is the audience supposed to care about more: whether Chappie can find a way to avoid "dying" when his battery runs or if the small robot can beat up the heavily armed walking-tank of a robot? "Chappie" fails to present a clear narrative or character arch, which renders the movie virtually rudderless, with the exception of a few silly/basic plot elements: "ex-soldier/designer bad, gangsters crazy."
The ambiguity of "Chappie" is absolutely shocking given how insanely unsubtle and heavy handed the rest of this film is with its characters and themes. Chappie himself directly asks his creator why the inventor would create awareness only to let such consciousness die. A one-dimensional company executive at the robot factory decries a "thinking robot could be the end of humanity." (This is never elaborated on or questioned.) The non-too-subtle tale of a black sheep told as a bedtime story to the child-like Chappie - himself feared and hated by pretty much everyone - borders on insulting the audience. And it's only by the skill of Academy Award-nominated actor Hugh Jackman who salvages some modicum of humanity from an otherwise one-dimensional cartoon of an antagonist.
"Chappie" is a tangled mess of thematic oversimplifications cobbled together into something that sort of resembles a "story." This movie has a "beginning" and an "end" -- complete with a resolution filled with frustrating story cheats and unresolved plot threads -- but there's simply no compelling "middle." Without a clear story, dramatic tension is minimal and completely dependent on the simplest of dramatic stakes: "will Chappie, his adopted 'family' or his creator survive?" The only obstruction that any of the main characters face comes in the form of something that can kill them -- virtually no other thematic or story stakes are threatened ... which is surprising given how many weighty metaphysical themes are halfheartedly introduced throughout the story. The main movie poster boasts a "Humanity's last hope isn't human" tagline that must have been written for a completely different movie in mind, because that sentence in no way applies to "Chappie."
The final straw is this film's irritating resolution -- a mixture of expectations that are never paid off, dangling/unresolved plot threads that are hastily abandoned, a clunky pile of very convenient story cheats that ultimately undermines the scant few dramatic stakes this movie bothered to set up. The resolution attempts to make a grand, if oversimplified, message about consciousness -- while accidentally sabotaging its main dramatic plot points.
Final verdict: Like a distorted copy of a copy, "Chappie" is a lesser version of "Elysium," which itself was a poor repackaging of the brilliant "District 9." While Blomkamp's first was a refreshing science fiction packed with intelligence and humanity, this latest film lacks either of these elements.
"Chappie" opens in theaters nationwide Friday, March 6 and is rated R for violence, language and brief nudity.