Forget about Paul Verhoeven. Step aside, the Wachowskis. There’s a new master in town when it comes to bats**t conceptual sci-fi. South African director Neil Blomkamp is well known for his allegorical social commentary – apartheid in District 9, health care and the 1% in Elysium – but the underpinnings of Chappie are mainly philosophical.
Taking its premise straight from Verhoeven’s playbook, Chappie takes place in a Johannesburg patrolled by a robot police force. Their creator, Deon (Dev Patel), is looking to develop rudimentary AI into true consciousness, but he doesn’t plan on the intervention of a trio of dappy criminals (hip-hop duo Die Antwoord plus repeat Blomkamp collaborator Jose Pablo Cantillo). Soon enough the newly sentient Chappie is out in the hard world, much to the chagrin of Deon’s professional rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who has his own more brutal ED-209-esque model to sell.
While our protagonist would initially seem to be the would-be Doctor Frankenstein – Patel on usual reliable, if uninspired, form – these competing forces quickly scatter much of Chappie’s focus and energy. Chappie himself spends much of the film holed up in a grungy, counterculture factory with Ninja and Yolandi, seemingly alternate versions of their “real-life” personas. Ninja is a stereotypical trigger-happy asshole gangsta, interested in the robot only as potential muscle, while the bleach-blonde, otherworldly Yolandi quickly adopts the role of Chappie’s surrogate mommy.
The threat represented by Vincent – a frustrated, Antipodean ex-army psycho in shorts and a mullet – only really comes into focus towards the film’s final act. Meanwhile, as the eponymous character, Sharlto Copley turns in a performance that threatens to challenge Andy Serkis for the mo-cap crown. Simultaneously broad and nuanced, he manages to perfectly capture the fledgling consciousness’ journey from skittish child to petulant teen to self-sacrificing adult, even as the battery on his chest begins its inexorable descent into the red.
Chappie is characterised both by its excesses and its deficiencies. There’s the hysterical ludicrousness of a bling-wearing robot carjacker throwing shurikens and screaming about putting people to sleep. Meanwhile, the film skimps on world-building and Sigourney Weaver is wasted as Deon’s unremitting employer – hopefully Blomkamp will make better use of her in the upcoming Alien 5. Nevertheless, Deon’s eventual realisation of his roles as father, disapproving of Chappie’s crude upbringing, and God, responsible for his encroaching death, shows real pathos.
While it bears many of its predecessors themes – poverty and transformation, to name but two – Chappie accompanies these with a side of outright lunacy (and the most intrusive product placement outside a Michael Bay film). Full of intriguing ideas, but ultimately too weird for its own good, the film is the uneven but intriguing sum of its disparate parts.