Since I absolutely loved District 9 by the director Neill Blomkamp, I really wanted to see Chappie despite having some misgivings due to the cutesyness of the title. The grittiness of the setting combined with the childlike innocence of the title character almost worked, which is how the entire movie is. It’s about half a dozen poor choices away from being a great movie. In fact, the parts of it that worked are so good that I wish I could give the director a do-over. It could have been a memorable movie. Instead, the poor choices are so bad that, despite some fun moments, the movie overall is just okay. It is entertaining and I wasn’t for a moment bored. Since I hate being bored at the movies, the director does get a thumbs up for that much.
Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, an engineer who works for a manufacturer of police robots. The robots are equipped with artificial intelligence and can operate on their own. Deon, however, dreams of creating “real AI,” in other words a robot that possesses consciousness. When one of the police robots breaks, Deon takes the opportunity to load his experimental software into it. The robot is stolen by a group of gangsters who owe a large amount of money to an even more vicious gangster. Also working for the military manufacturer is another engineer, played by Hugh Jackman, who distrusts AI and is working on a larger robot which would be operated remotely by a human.
Of the three gangsters who steal the robot who become Chappie, two are played by Yolandi Visser and Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), members of the South African rap-rave group, Die Antwoord, and they are a joy to watch. Yolandi Visser is especially well suited to the role because she embodies both the cutesyness and the grittiness in the movie. She seems to be in her element whether she is committing a crime or sweetly encouraging the robot to call her “Mommy.”
It is strange that the gangsters in their lair, located in an abandoned industrial building with colorful graffiti on the wall, feel more real than the engineers in their office. That is a real weakness in the movie. I would have preferred to see the engineers working in teams, perhaps making the distinction between the people working on the software and those working on the hardware. It also would have helped if the office environment wasn’t just a generic office with cubicles that could have been lifted from any movie. Also, we don’t get any sense of the general population beyond the gangsters and the company that makes the robots. The summary from Sony Pictures Entertainment says:
In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. But now, the people are fighting back.
However, I didn’t get that at all. Is the government weak and the population terrorized by these gangs? Is the society totally dysfunctional and do most people rely on the gangs unless they’re really rich? We don’t really get what’s going on in this society.
Also, the ending doesn’t quite work emotionally.
District 9 was really something special. Unfortunately, Chappie is not. I hope Blomkamp gets it right next time.