Following the recent advance screening of director/screenwriter Neill Blomkamp’s latest, Chappie, a friend commented on the film ever so eloquently using just one emoticon-that of the “smiley poo”. A cutesy picture of feces with an animated smiling face is an apt description for the overall quality of the film as it is cartoonish, messy, and unoriginal. Blomkamp’s derivative attempt at an ’80s robot science fiction film using blatantly plagiarized elements from the original Robocop, Blade Runner and the recent Big Hero 6 is yet another disappointing entry to the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Set in the not so distant future of 2016, Blomkamp (working with fellow screenwriter Terri Tachell) sets the tale in his native Johannesburg, much like his seminal work District 9. The city, once rife with skyrocketing crime rates, has turned peaceful with the aid of a massive robot police force created by earnest roboticist Dion Wilson (Dev Patel of The Newsroom and Slumdog Millionaire). Dion, being the innocent and näive worker that he is for a booming weapons and security firm, works tirelessly to develop a sentient machine. When he is ruthlessly kidnapped by crass criminals Yolandi, Ninja (members of South Africa’s rap-rave group Die Antwoord, playing flamboyant versions of themselves) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) for their own corrupt purposes, Dion is forced into creating his cognizant bot. Tagged Chappie (both in name and in grafitti-esque tattoos), the cyborg mentally flourishes and adapts much like a human. “He” begins with the emotional and mental capabilities of a baby, and matures from a young child to a temper throwing teenager to an empathetic and vastly intelligent adult. Though “raised” by his caring “Mommy” and weapons toting “Daddy”, Chappie is also guided and nurtured by his “Maker” Dion. There’s also a narrative subplot involving a mulleted and maniacal Hugh Jackman (playing a rival engineer), but it’s unnecessary bloat and an excuse to brandish a replica of Robocop’s ED-209 and a third act frenzy of violence.
Though Blomkamp and Tachell’s script briefly touches upon fascinating philosophical notions on consciousness, theology, and the debate of nature vs. nurture (not to mention a welcome return to District 9’s allegory of the turmoil in South Africa), the film overall is cluttered. Between its proud display of Robocop mimicry, ridiculously campy comedic set pieces (especially in the “family” scenes), and flourishes of enlightened ideas poorly executed, Chappie is a bucket of bolts.