Following his first dalliance with studio filmmaking with Elysium, it seemed like District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp had returned to his roots with Chappie. A Johannesburg-set story about a police robot given consciousness, Chappie feels like it should fit neatly into the “politically aware near-future action sci-fi with a dark sense of humour” box that we’ve scribbled Blomkamp’s name on. While those elements are present, the film seems to be pulling in different directions.
The Jo-burg police force has successfully deployed Scout robots, designed by wunderkind Deon (Dev Patel), rejecting the massive, weapons-heavy Moose design created by ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman). Against the wishes of his boss (Sigourney Weaver), Deon’s working on something greater still: an AI programme that will allow the Scouts to think and feel.
Meanwhile, Ninja, Yo-Landi and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) are in big trouble. They need 20 million in a week or they’re dead. Yo-Landi suggests kidnapping Deon to get their hands on the “robot remote” but they end up with something far greater: a broken robot with a mind of its own. Deon tries to nurture the infant-like creation while Ninja wants him to be “robot gangsta number one!” When Vincent finds out what’s going on, everything will come crashing down.
Chappie opens on over-familiar ground, as news footage and talking heads setting the scene remind us of Blomkamp’s previous work and, like Chappie himself, the film is decidedly unsteady for the first half hour. There’s a blistering early action sequence as we see the brutal efficiency of the Scouts, but much of the scene-setting feels routine, as arguments we’ve heard in films before about the perils and potential of AI are rattled through. Despite the excellent work of Patel and Jackman, and it feels like Blomkamp is just trying to get us to the main event.
Once Chappie is switched on, things get a lot more interesting. The concept of a robot raised by Die Antwoord has always been Blomkamp’s pitch for the film, and how well you get on with Chappie may well depend on how well you get on with them (we found them hugely watchable). While Deon is established as Chappie’s maker and the voice of moral idealism, Ninja is the short-tempered father and Yo-Landi the caring mother. They’re fully committed, and their set decoration and costume design make it feel like an extended Die Antwoord video in places. Add in Copley’s wonderfully excitable child-like performance (“Chappie’s got blings?!?”) and this is where the film feels truly original and different. Johnny 5 never got tricked into car-jacking or emotionally blackmailed into committing a heist. As a dark comedy with a surprising emotional core, Chappie is brilliant fun.
It’s the framing that lets the film down. Despite the best efforts of the cast it feels like an afterthought that’s obliged to acknowledge influences like Short Circuit and RoboCop. Deon and Vincent are infinitely more interesting when they’re in Chappie’s orbit, and it is worth noting that Jackman in particular seems to be having the time of his life as the hard-headed bastard in a mullet and shorts who’s determined to utilise as much firepower as possible to get the job done.
Chappie is overlong at two hours and it’s inconsistent, but there’s more than enough here to recommend it. It’s at its best as an ultraviolent action comedy with a heart and a strangely lovable family at its core, and when they’re on screen it feels unpredictable, fresh, exciting and weird. That should be applauded.