The latest sci-fi effort from South-African director Neill Blomkamp might not be the outright disaster we feared, but CHAPPiE is no return to form either.
Having made the genuinely exciting and innovative low-budget Blockbuster District 9 a mere six years ago, Blomkamp has been trying to make futuristic thrillers in a similar vein ever since. Elysium was given the benefit of the doubt, Matt Damon taking on the starring role as a man desperate to get to the space safe haven of the title. It borrowed heavily from other films in the genre as well as from his own debut feature, but had some ideas of its own to keep it interesting.
Unfortunately CHAPPiE is even more derivative, and Blomkamp appears to have simply given up on creating anything new.
In the near future, police work has been handed over to robots. Their inventor, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), wants to take things further and give these mechanised droids some form of Artificial Intelligence. His plans are thwarted by his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), who also denies the plans of rival inventor, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a born-again Christian keen to keep godless machines free of thought but armed to the hilt with military grade weaponry.
Wilson decides to continue with his research, taking a damaged droid home with him to develop his ideas further. On the way back, however, he is hijacked by a gang of criminals who want control of the machines for their own purposes. Finding an unlikely ally in his scheme, Wilson boots up new software and places it in the rebuilt machine. The criminals name him Chappie, and he soon develops a personality of his own. The experiment is a success.
Moore, meanwhile, also refuses to take no for an answer. He wants permission to unleash his creation on the streets of Johannesburg and is willing to endanger the lives of the entire city to get what he wants. Eventually, only the ghetto-speaking gangster Chappie can stop him, but will his “humanity” get in the way?
Although the cast is headlined by a number of international stars, it’s three South Africans who make the biggest impact. Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley is on hand to provide the voice and movement of Chappie, while Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser take on the roles of Father and Mother respectively. Their dynamic as criminals on the run who adopt the childlike robot as one of their own is the best thing in the film.
Chappie himself comes across as an innocent being pulled one way then the other. If Ricky Gervais could make a futuristic retelling of his TV series Derek, then this is what it would be like.
The soundtrack borrows heavily from the biggest hits of the last few years with Tron Legacy, The Dark Knight, Terminator and Inception all getting unintentional nods. Likewise the visuals are a mash-up, of Tank Girl, Robocop, Short Circuit and District 9.
Sigourney Weaver has little to do, her role consisting mainly of speaking over an intercom system and saying “no” a lot whilst dressed in a snazzy power suit. One would hope that her next team-up with the director, on the quasi Reboot of Alien, will involve more action. Jackman gets to go “full-Australian”, spouting – what we assume are colloquial – insults about frogs in socks and sporting a rather fetching mullet.
It’s all quite depressing. Nothing new or particularly clever is on offer and the ham-fisted efforts at exploring what it means to be “alive” are devalued by endless product placement. An uninvolving, over-long misfire.