Chappie is the third feature-length film of South African director Neill Blomkamp, and, sadly, a disappointing attempt to reheat most of the ingredients of his acclaimed debut District 9. In that thoughtful and naturalistic variation on the familiar aliens-invading-earth premise, Blomkamp revealed a considerable gift for evoking pathos with the least likely characters: disoriented extraterrestrials which resemble overgrown shrimp and the Afrikaner bureaucrats who are trying to evict them. The picture occupies a unique position in the pantheon of alien films as the only major recent example of one whose principal appeal is not based on its ability to produce inner ear damage.
These accolades cannot be honestly transferred to Chappie. Once again, Blomkamp lays the scene in the more blighted sections of his native Johannesburg, which city, at the picture’s beginning, is suffering a crime wave of such a magnitude as can only be solved by the deployment of a new brand of robotic policemen, the manufacture of whom is the monopolistic prerogative of the Tetravaal Corporation. Dissatisfied with this arrangement (perhaps because of the manifold complications that it caused the first time it was tried in the Robocop franchise) is Hugh Jackman, a frustrated engineer with a discreditable mullet. The drama turns on a trio of thugs (all of whom, to judge by appearances, have escaped from Escape from New York) who kidnap a Tetravaal inventor (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, who invests a flatly written part with enthusiasm and charm) and force him to develop a new robot to serve as muscle in a heist scheme. But this being a Blomkamp film, the situation begins to gain in tension as we realize that the robot, to whom his captors give the name Chappie, has a soul, and that a vulnerable one. He is an innocent prodigy. He is Rousseau’s natural man, albeit in a metallic casing that suggests something from the LEGO catalogue. Burdened with all the naivety that attends such a condition, he discovers that the state of nature, at least as it appears in the seedy environs of Johannesburg slums, is fraught with violence and prejudice, directed not least against himself, this veritable Candide of higher widgetry. A fight over the rights to Chappie’s guardianship develops between Patel’s character and the insensitive hooligans, who bedeck Chappie in gangland bling, give him a handgun and teach him how to hijack cars and spout foul language. In the meantime, Jackman has been busy weaving a scheme of his own that involves replacing the current self-operating line of police robots with a military-grade substitute that he has designed himself, with perhaps the occasional piece of inspiration from the Transformers series. On this note, it should be said that for all of Blomkamp’s accolades as a bright new auteur, he has difficulty escaping the shadow of his influences: the climactic sequence, in which corrupt law enforcement officials shoot it out with the more colorful elements of the Johannesburg criminal classes and a couple of robots, might easily have been contrived by Michael Bay with the assistance of a handful of twelve-year-old boys on a sugar high. It is neither inappropriate nor surprising that the film’s one shamelessly visible product placement is for Red Bull.
Having salvaged more than a few shiny baubles from sci-fi archives recent and remote, Blomkamp concludes Chappie with a denouement seemingly designed to raise more than a few questions about the nature of consciousness and the self, mind-body duality, and exactly how much sub-Wachowskian hooey your average theatergoer is willing to stomach before he heads for the exits. Most ominously, the final minutes of the picture establish with almost perfect cynicism the grounds for a sequel.