Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: Chappie

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Imagine if Johnny 5 had decided to run off with Los Locos in "Short Circuit 2" and you sort of have a sense of where "Chappie" is heading. In all seriousness, Neill Blomkamp's third feature has some intriguing ideas, so it's a shame that it is also filled with a number of unfortunate elements.

For starters, "Chappie" is not a bad film. There are some plot threads with which I could have done without, but the picture is competently made.

Set just shortly in the future, South Africa's police force has decided to use robot cops to patrol its streets, the result being a swift drop in crime. But Deon, the scientist who invented the robotic police force, wants to do more with his creation that simply use them for crime fighting tactics. He takes the body of one of the damaged droids and plugs into it a chip that will help it to develop its own mind. This robot, named Chappie, begins to have consciousness and think for itself, although its learning process is similar to that of a child.

Deon's boss - played by Sigourney Weaver - does not want him to help a robot have a mind of its own and his nemesis, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), has designed a more aggressive, military-type robot that Weaver's character believes is not appropriate for community policing.

And here's where "Chappie" begins to run a little off the rails. The robot is stolen by a group of thugs who plan to use him for robberies and strong-arming fellow criminals. They are played by South African hip hop group Die Antwoord, both of whom are covered in tattoos and look like characters straight out of a "Mad Max" movie. In the film, Blomkamp has made the strange choice to allow Ninja and Yo-Landi play themselves, a move that provides for some colorful moments, but just as often brings the proceedings to a halt. One nagging thought: What to make of Blomkamp's seeming obsession with having a majority of his characters wear mullets?

Vincent concocts an evil plan - because with what other type of plans do nemeses come up? - to shut down the city's robocop forces and use his own machine in their place. This move, of course, puts Deon, Chappie and his criminal pals in a very tight spot.

"Chappie" is a strange mixture of tones and genres. On the one hand, when Yo-Landi and Deon teach the robot how to paint or read a book, the picture almost feels like a movie aimed at kids. Then, there are the numerous action sequences, which start off violent and culminate with the killing of a fairly significant character in an extremely gruesome manner.

Blomkamp has some interesting ideas at play here as to what it means to have "consciousness," but he tries to throw in a somewhat happy ending, depending on your perspective, that feels like a bit more than a stretch.

I thought the director's first film, "District 9," was a very clever science fiction film that incorporated the theme of Apartheid, while "Elysium," though not as good, involved health care. "Chappie" is the weakest of his three films, despite some decent stand-alone moments. Aside from Patel's likable Deon, Chappie is likely the character with the most humanity in the film. Perhaps, the picture would have been a little better if the humans involved were better utilized.

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