Film Review: The jumbled machinery of Neill Blomkamp's 'Chappie' never clicks
Neill Blomkamp's "Chappie" is a curious Frankenstein.
It's set in a near-future Johannesburg policed by robots, but it's not about law enforcement or social order. It focuses on the first creation of a sentient artificial intelligence, yet it's not about the consequences of this radical invention or the nature of consciousness.
Instead, though "Chappie" bears all the hallmarks of a "RoboCop" retread or a grungier "A.I." (or heaven help us, "Transcendence"), it's actually more like a warped, sci-fi version of "The Jungle Book" in which a child robot must survive the urban wilds of a gang-ridden Johannesburg.
If it sounds like "Chappie" has some peculiar, crisscrossed circuitry, it most certainly does. The movie's mismatched parts — which includes possibly the most unlikely co-starring combo of all time: the South African rap duo Die Antwoord and Hugh Jackman — fit together about as well as Johnnie Five, the "Short Circuit" bot, and a blender.
"Chappie" is the third feature from Blomkamp, who broke through with the alien refugee thriller "District 9" and followed that up with "Elysium," a big-budget allegory in which the 1 percent live on an orbiting space station. His dystopias aren't so unfamiliar. They marry great technological evolution with stunted social progress, organically placing sci-fi elements amid recognizable bureaucracies and urban decay.
Blomkamp likes to invert tropes. Aliens come not to invade but as desperate immigrants. Robots evolve not to annihilate but to love. Both need our help. In short, Blomkamp makes action-heavy sci-fi that's animated by political ideas and frustrated urgency more than most Hollywood science fiction combined. It's deservedly won him a following, as well as the helm to the next "Alien" film.
"Chappie," too, is more spirited, more bizarrely composed than most, but its oddly jumbled machinery never clicks. The logic of "Chappie" gradually disintegrates, becoming increasingly farcical. Eventually, characters are speaking lines as finely scripted as: "I have authorized the launch of the Moose."
Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") plays a wide-eyed, ambitious engineer named Deon whose droids have already become the front lines of Johannesburg's police force. But he dreams of making a fully human robot, even though his boss, the CEO of a weapons company (Sigourney Weaver) shrugs that there's no money in it. A few cubicles down from him sits a rival engineer (Jackman), whose gargantuan, heavy artillery "Moose" machine has been outshined by Deon's more nimble, human-like "Scouts."
Slavishly tinkering at his home, Deon's A.I. software finally succeeds, and he sneaks out a damaged droid to use as its body. His discovery, though, comes at a bad time. A trio of gangsters kidnaps him in an attempt to take out the police robots. They're led by Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord, the wild, manic hip-hop act who essentially play themselves (or rather, their extreme stage personas).
They make Deon build his robot. With a few keystrokes, he uploads consciousness and suddenly the bucket of bolts is cowering like a frightened fawn. To the disappointment of the gang but the glee of Deon, Chappie (whom Yolandi names) comes out not a menacing enforcer but an innocent toddler in titanium. They collectively raise him, teaching him with children's books, paints and guns. He coos "Mommy" to Yolandi and "Daddy" to Ninja.
The education of Chappie, born into gangsters, pulls in two directions: the caring tenderness of Yolandi and the tough love of Ninja, who wants him to help in a heist. Yolandi gives him a doll, while Ninja drops Chappie next to a gang, leaving him to fend for himself. Another lesson on the dog-eat-dog world is told literally with dogs.
And so "Chappie," against all odds, is a parable of parenting about the raising of a metal child by a pair of wacked-out faux-gangsters in a tough universe. It feels it could, at any time, turn into a comedy or an outlandish music video, and maybe it should have.
"Chappie," a Sony Pictures release, is rated R for "violence, language and brief nudity." Running time: 112 minutes. Two stars out of four.