"Chappie" is not Neill Blomkamp's worst film. That honor still belongs to "Elysium." However, "Chappie" is rife with the same problems and issues. There's the haphazard, not-quite-thought-out social commentary, the messy narrative, the rampant cribbing from other media, the paper-thin villains, the grating misuse of good actors, and the increasingly detrimental involvement of Sharlto Copley. There's downright terrible writing everywhere you look. And yet, "Chappie" manages to create a good central character, and makes good use of some interesting concepts. By the end, the film won me over, though it was a very close call.
Chappie (voiced by Shalto Copley) is a rabbit-eared police robot, one of a group that has been created by the Tetravaal company to replace human officers in Johannesburg. Chappie's creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has been working on creating a true artificial intelligence, and uses Chappie to test his work. Unfortunately, both are kidnapped by a gang of thieves led by brutish Ninja and motherly Yolandi (South African rappers, Die Antwoord, playing versions of their stage personas). Deon is forced to turn over custody of the newly sentient Chappie to the gang, who intend to use him to commit a big heist. Chappie, however, is mentally an infant and needs time ot learn and grow. So Deon, Yolandi, and Ninja tussell over Chappie's education and development, each trying to instill their own values in him. Meanwhile, Deon's rival at Tetravaal, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), hatches a plan to sabotage the existing robot force, so that he can push his own creation, a larger and deadlier robot sentinel.
Nearly everything about "Chappie" feels like it's been borrowed from somewhere else. The plot is "Short Circuit" crossed with "Robocop." The robot design was clearly lifted from Masamune Shirow's "Appleseed." Blomkamp also includes many of his favorite elements - a hero whose life is on a timer, a heartless corporation as the big villain, and uncouth street criminals as smaller ones. This wouldn't be so bad in the right hands, but here all of it is mashed together in a story that frequently feels like it's struggling to get the characters from one plot point to the next. The script ties itself in knots to put Chappie into the hands of Ninja and Yolandi, but still accessible by Deon, and somehow on Vincent's radar, but not Tetravaal's. Chappie is obliged learn at an astonishing rate, yet still be dumb enough to fall fro Ninja's simple deceptions, to enjoy acting gangsta, but not actually want to commit any crimes. Yet he does commit crimes thanks to Ninja, whose attitude toward Chappie is constantly changing depending on what the movie needs him to do. And poor Dev Patel seems to be constantly running from one place to another, trying to keep up.
At least he comes off like he knows what he's doing onscreen, which is more than I can say for the Die Antwoord members. Yolandi Visser kind of works as Chappie's "Mommy," in spite of her odd affectations, but her role seems purposefully limited. Ninja, who is obliged to do much more, is often painful to watch. I'm not sure if it's his accent, his overly broad mannerisms, the paper-thin gangster character, or the crummy dialogue, but Ninja's just a hot mess. I'm tempted to compare him to Tommy Wiseau in a couple of scenes, he's so off the wall weird. Then there's the moustache-twirling, villainous cliche that Hugh Jackman is playing, and the totally blank Tetravaal executive Sigourney Weaver has to work with. There's an awful exposition scene with both of them in the third act, where I was actually getting upset at how badly Neill Blomkamp was wasting these actors.
Oh, and we can't forget about Sharlto Copley. The Chappie character's biggest flaw is his voice. He's often described as a child, but doesn't sound much like one except for a few mild verbal tics. He doesn't really sound all that much like a robot either. He sounds like Sharlto Copley with his voice through a filter, and Copley has demonstrated time and time again since "District 9" that he's good at playing exactly one type of character, and has trouble when he strays too far from that persona. Here, Copley plays Chappie way too big, often barking his lines, so that he comes off as mentally stunted rather than naive. It takes far, far too long for the film to establish that Chappie is inherently a good soul, worthy of our affections. And yet, in spite of all the contradictions and all the shoddy construction and Sharlto Copley, I found I liked Chappie very much.
The CGI in Blomkamp's films is still gorgeous, and Chappie is an absolute marvel to watch as he moves and interacts with the world around him. Even if the film got nothing else right, it gives its title character a strong, solid emotional arc. It gives us reasons to empathize with him and root for his survival. I think it helps that nobody is saving the world or mankind or anything so lofty here. We're only asked to care about one person, to care about the choices that he makes and the lessons that he learns. And though the telling of it is often rushed and messy and compromised, in the end I found myself fully invested in Chappie's story and ultimate fate. It doesn't matter what kind of tired, action movie nonsense he's obliged to fight through, or the ridiculous human characters he's stuck with as a makeshift family - Chappie works.
So I found the thirty-odd minutes primarily featuring him outweighed the hour and a half of additional dreck. Barely. I'm sure it didn't for many viewers, though, and understandably so. There's way too much here that's just lazy, uninspired, and downright bad filmmaking. Neill Blomkamp remains a terribly talented director, and a terribly disappointing one.