I was not a fan of "District 9", nor "Elysium", so I'm not exactly sure why I thought writer/director Neill Blomkamp's latest production would be any better. Using his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa as a setting again, Blomkamp and his wife, Terri Tatchell, have crafted a futuristic tale of artificial intelligence that is overwhelmingly dark and depressing.
Deon Wilson (Dev Patel, in his second big film out this week) is the chief programmer for Tetravaal, an innovative company headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). They have developed a robotic police force for the local government.
Deon has bigger plans for his robots, but Bradley won't agree to his experiment, so he steals a wrecked droid and turns him into a robot with the ability to think and feel. Unfortunately for Deon, who is kidnapped by a crazy trio, Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), looking for the shut-off switch for the police droids so they can score a big robbery, his prized possession falls into these nutcases' hands.
Yolandi adopts this new robot, and names him Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley). And though she professes to love Chappie like a child of her own, she cannot protect him from her insane boyfriend and his diabolical sidekick. They lie to Chappie and drag him into their "heist", something Deon had made Chappie promise not to do. But Chappie realizes he needs a new body of titanium and Ninja swears he will buy him one if he comes along on the job.
Also in this crazy mix is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), another engineer at Tetravaal. He is obsessed with a larger robot he designed, constructed as a real killing machine. But Jackman plays Moore with a maniacal bent that ultimately turns cartoonish.
Everyone in this cast is guilty of overacting, including Chappie. Patel, Jackman, Weaver, Ninja and Yolandi are all positively off the charts, and the dialogue by Blomkamp and Tatchell is awful. Banal doesn't begin to describe the nonsensical screenplay forced upon the audience.
Yolandi uses baby talk to communicate with Chappie, and both she and Ninja refer to themselves as " Mommy" and "Daddy". Moore practically strangles Deon to death in front of the entire office, and no one attempts to stop him. The uber "bad guy", Hippo, played by Brandon Auret, is a joke. He struts around like a Neanderthal, screaming "I want my 20 million dollars".
Most of the film takes place in an abandoned factory where Yolandi and Ninja have set up house. Per usual in Blomkamp's films, the set designs are dreary and oppressive. But it's his character development that begs for a change. Blomkamp tries mightily to get us to care about Yolandi, but she simply isn't worth the effort.
Despite the hype, "Chappie" is one of those movies that's forgettable before you even leave the theater.
Opinion: Don't Bother!
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who debuted in 2009 with the very well-received sci-fi drama "District 9", is infatuated with the genre. His follow-up film, "Elysium" with Matt Damon, was a mild critical hit, and a commercial success --- earning $286 million against a budget of $115 million. Now we have "Chappie", a futuristic movie set in Blomkamp's native Johannesburg, South Africa, about robots who have replaced police.
The robots in this world are formidable and unfeeling. But a young scientist, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is enamored with the idea of creating a robot that has real human emotions. He steals a police robot designated for destruction so he can reconstruct him accordingly.
Actor Sharlto Copley, a frequent collaborator with Blomkamp, plays the title robot that the filmmakers hope audiences will embrace like they did in "Wall-E". Good luck with that.
To create Chappie, the robot, Copley was first filmed going through all the motions, and then animators "painted" Chappie over Copley's body. The film is a reasonable technical achievement, but not a compelling dramatic one.
The only reason "Chappie" was tolerable, for me, is because it was the second film screened immediately after sitting through "Unfinished Business". Anything would have been an improvement over that dud.
Still, "Chappie" offers little in the way of poignancy, which Blomkamp and his co-writer/wife Terri Tatchell, were attempting. She also co-wrote "District 9". Part of the problem is Chappie is kidnapped, more or less, by unsavory characters --- tattoos, piercings, weird hair abound.
Using their real names in the cast, Yolandi (first time actress Yo-Landi Visser) and Ninja (first time actor Ninja), are in actuality the rap rave group Die Antwoord, an international music sensation. But in the film, they are rather unsympathetic criminals.
Yolandi takes Chappie under her wing as his "Mommy", and Ninja is his "Daddy". Her maternal instincts kick in, but Ninja sees Chappie only as a means to illegally raise money he owes to a vicious gangster named Hippo (Branden Auret). Meanwhile, Wilson is trying to teach Chappie the ways of the human world, but he doesn't have to work very hard. Chappie picks everything up far too easily to be even remotely credible, so there is no "Aha!" moment when things click for him.
Hugh Jackman is Vincent Moore, an engineer who doesn't believe in robots. His efforts to destroy Chappie are ripped off from "Avatar" as he controls a giant machine, The Moose, from his remote position inside Tetravaal, the company which employs him. It is run by greedy CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, in an unconvincing, by-the-numbers performance).
Jackman's extended fight against Chappie looks like something from the old "Battle Bots" program, and like so many fight scenes in so many films, it's far too long. While it's unusual to see Jackman in the role of villain, he's so well known as a hero figure throughout his career, I had a hard time identifying with his "bad guy" persona. But he was a recognizable addition to the cast, and he relished the role.
Patel is a good actor with the right material, as he showed on the excellent, but now canceled, "The Newsroom" on HBO. But "Chappie" is too simplistic and superficial to be the right material. It's a well-photographed film with no heart. Enough with the futuristic plots --- maybe Blomkamp and Tatchell should utilize their talents in a completely different arena.
Opinion: Mild Wait for DVD