There’s still reason to be hopeful about 20th Century Fox’s decision to hand the reigns of the next “Alien” movie to Neill Blomkamp, but the bloom is likely to be off the rose for a lot of sci-fi fans after they take a gander at “Chappie,” which continues Blomkamp’s series of declining returns after the disappointing “Elysium.”
It is in no way surprising that among the first words uttered by an audience member upon the conclusion of the advance screening of “Chappie” involved the phrase “if ‘Robocop’ and ‘Short Circuit’ had a baby.” After all, the film – co-written by Blomkamp and his wife, Terri Tachell – takes place in the not-too-distant future and revolves around the decision by the city of Johannesburg, South Africa to adopt a partially robotic police force. These aren’t cyborgs, a la the officer formerly known as Alex Murphy: they’re 100% robot, designed by programmer extraordinaire Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Despite what he’s already achieved in his field, Wilson continues to strive for a greater breakthrough, focusing his sights on the goal of cracking the consciousness code, as it were, and creating the first sentient robot.
As you might expect, Wilson achieves this goal in short order, but his boss (played by Sigourney Weaver) isn’t wooed by his pitch to experiment with his consciousness program on a damaged robot marked for destruction and denies his request. Now, in fairness, his pitch is really, really terrible. Who goes to the head of a company that makes police robots and starts off by mentioning that one of the benefits of sentience is that a robot can judge the merits of art and write its own poetry? But as you might also expect, her denial in no way stops him from deciding to swipe the deactivated robot and do his experiment anyway.
Naturally, this act of rebellion promptly bites Wilson in the ass, and in two very big ways. First of all, his actions are discovered by his jealous co-worker, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who refuses to accept that his model of police robot – the Moose, which every single moviegoer is going to look at and say, “Oh, hey, that looks just like the thing from ‘Robocop’!” – is too bulky for police use in an urban setting. This is bad enough, but it gets worse when he tries to make his break with the robot and is promptly kidnapped by a trio of punk-inspired criminals who want to make one last score (don’t they all?) and figure that the guy who invented the police robots knows how to turn them off. Wilson claims it’s impossible, even though we later learn definitively that it actually isn’t, but in a frantic burst of inspiration, he tells them that they can try his new consciousness program on the robot he’s got in his van, and if it works like it’s supposed to, then the robot can help them achieve their goal.
And so we come to the titular character: Chappie, named by his “mother,” Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), because he’s such a happy chappie. Wilson’s program imbues the robot with the mind of a baby, for all practical purposes, but one that’s capable of learning exponentially faster than a human. Unfortunately, the punks send Wilson his way in rapid fashion, and their influence turns out to be far more felonious than that of Chappie’s “maker,” and…well, it would be fair to say that Wilson’s creation goes in a direction that’s a far cry from what the programmer had ever intended.
As a character, Chappie is variously sweet, funny, confused and heartbreaking, and you’re invariably drawn to him whenever he’s onscreen, thanks to a strong vocal and – somewhere beneath the CGI – physical performance by Sharlto Copley. It’s just a shame that poor Chappie is stuck in a patchwork collection of clichés and, one can only presume, aspects from Blomkamp’s favorite ‘80s sci-fi films.
On the cliché front, it is in no way an understatement to suggest that literally anyone of any gender could’ve played Weaver’s part, so paper-thin is the role of Wilson’s boss, whose only goals are to make money, spin situations in a positive manner, and pat the troops on the back for a job well done, while Jackman is stuck trying to make the most of a character whose intentions are crystal clear from the moment he’s introduced and whose story plays out exactly how you’d expect it play out from the moment he’s introduced. Meanwhile, the aforementioned trio of thugs – Ninja (Die Antwoord’s Ninja), Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Yolandi – bring a certain amount of color to the film, to be sure, and their nemesis, Hippo (Brandon Auret), brings even more, but they’re so over the top that they perpetually seem like they’ve stepped in from another film altogether, one that lies somewhere between “The Warriors” and “The Road Warrior.” But it must be said that the whole affair looks great, and there’s still a certain amount of heart to the film thanks to Chappie, which is why the ending still manages to have a degree of emotional heft, even if it is pretty silly.
“Chappie” certainly never achieves greatness, but like the ‘80s movies that seemingly served as its inspiration, it has enough charm – and, at least in Chappie, enough originality – that it’s likely to find decent box office success and then go on to become a cable (or streaming) staple for the long haul. It is not, however, going to please anyone who was hoping to see Blomkamp make a creative comeback after “Elysium.”