As a rule, I'm a fan of curiosities and one-of-a-kind films, even when their kind isn't particularly good. And there's an undeniable uniqueness to Chappie. If you've seen multiple trailers for writer-director Neill Blomkamp's third feature, you may be wondering whether it's a cutesy comic romp about a robot developing human feelings, à la Short Circuit, or an overbearing smash-'em-up action flick. The answer is both.
The South African filmmaker worked across a similar divide in his breakout first feature, District 9, in which he managed to showcase the manic sketch-comedy stylings of star Sharlto Copley while satisfying fans of both explosions and "thoughtful" science fiction.
After his lackluster high-budget follow-up, Elysium, Blomkamp returns with Chappie to his native land and his fondness for in-your-face tonal shifts. But while his model here appears to be the glorious original RoboCop, what landed on the screen is more like a cheaper, somewhat brainier Transformers movie, both in its sugar-high pacing and its strained humor.
Chappie's early scenes nod to Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film so blatantly that they can only be considered an homage. Faux news clips establish that the crime-ridden Johannesburg of the near future is patrolled by an army of metal police droids. Meanwhile, at a robot factory overseen by Sigourney Weaver, engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) fumes over the poor reception of his pet project, a tank-like law enforcer that resembles RoboCop's ED-209. And Vincent's rival, Deon (Dev Patel) nurtures a pet project of his own: an AI with humanlike consciousness.
Both men and their plotting collide with a trio of street thugs who hope to hijack and hack a police robot. When they abduct Deon, he happens to be toting both a condemned droid body and his precious consciousness program.
All this sets up a surreal twist on Boyhood: The battered hunk of metal is endowed with sentience and reborn as the childlike Chappie. His "parents" are the Bonnie and Clyde-esque Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (played by South African hip-hop duo Die Antwoord using their own names). In their hideout littered with twee graffiti, the criminal pair offer Chappie a bizarre mix of nurturing, manipulation and gangsta tough love, while various ticking-clock plot factors threaten their idyll. It's safe to say there's never been a robot coming-of-age story quite like this.
Chappie's transformation from a clomping robot into one that scurries and hides like a frightened human child is a triumph of visual effects. (Copley supplied the voice and motion-captured physicality.) If only our hero were likable or emotionally compelling, viewers might be able to overlook Blomkamp's frenzied, overreaching plot, full of software that works like magic and villains who act like pissy toddlers rather than rational antagonists.
But, alas, this would-be lovable robot is too frenetic and whiny to command our sympathies. Given the chaotic story into which Chappie has been thrust, and the Deep Thoughts he's asked to embody (from the puzzles of nurture to the technological singularity), one can hardly blame our robot lad for developing a neurosis or two. Indeed, by the time the film's explosion-packed climax arrives, one may want to sit him down for soothing milk and cookies.
And one may want to remind Blomkamp, as well, that he doesn't have to use all his cool ideas in one movie. In trying to add Spielbergian sentiment to the campy brutality of Verhoeven, he's Frankensteined together a clanking creation whose constituent parts have lost all their power to awe or inspire.
Chappie is something different, all right, and it could be one of those movies that cultists discover on cable or streaming and defend to the death. But for many moviegoers, watching it might feel too often like being booked by an ED-209 — loud, overbearing and painful.