65%Overall Score
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)
40%

Not so CRAPPy.

 

 

The city of Johannesburg has a cancer of crime, and the seemingly effective medicine has been the automated police scouts engineered by Tetra Vaal Robotics. But all is not what it seems when one droid gets an artificial intelligence upgrade, and is subsequently taken in by the wrong side of the law.

 
Director Neill Blomkamp once again teams up Sharlto Copley and South Africa’s most popular metropolis. This time, the exhibition is a sci-fi adventure whose concept has certainly been done many times before, but with a story that has its chance after a worthy build-up, now a common expectation in Blomkamp’s work. He revisits a few of his previous short subjects, most notably the films Yellow and 2004’s Tetra Vaal, which lends its name to the aforementioned tech company that designs the robot cops.

 
A warning, these next few paragraphs may give much of the plot away, but since it is so familiar, this kind of story has become almost like watching Shakespeare.

 
Casting and editing choices seem to have involved more heart than head, a compassionate flaw in much of Blomkamp’s work. Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, the head engineer of the Scout robots, Tetra Vaal’s most successful product. Though primarily responsible for the company’s success, he only has a desk, laptop, and an apartment in a decent part of town (where he lives only with small interactive robot companions) to show for it. His boss, the poorly miscast Sigourney Weaver, gets a corner office behind glass from which she simply signs papers, barks orders, and plays no role (on screen at least) in the research and development of this revolutionary task force. Rounding out the major players is Hugh Jackman, the much needed shot in the arm for the group and film, as Wilson’s rival engineer Vincent Moore, whose Moose robot would make Phil Tippett proud.

 
On the other side of town are the criminal minds led by South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord, using their own stage names Yolandi and Ninja, and their accomplice, a ne’er-do-well by the name of Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo – “Hey! That’s Martinez from The Walking Dead!”). The home is a broken tenement in a rundown slum reminiscent of the Detroit ghetto.

 
While lending his expertise to the development of the robotic police, Deon channels his inner Fisher Stevens to bring about a program for technological consciousness. When he pitches the idea to his boss, she tosses it aside without even the courtesy of a formal proposal. Her words, “You just came to the CEO of a weapons manufacturer with a program for robots to write poetry.” Some thanks!

 
After 945 days perfecting the program at home, Deon finally has enough to move ahead and takes out a scout set for demolition to test it out. Unbeknownst to him, he’s been targeted by Ninja’s gang to reprogram the droid so that it can help them get their money to pay a crime lord. Deon is also under suspicion of Moore, jealous of the young engineer’s success, channeling his own inner Ronny Cox.

 
After Deon reconstructs the droid and uploads the learning software, the newborn scout brings out a maternal instinct in Yolandi, happily tagging him a “happy chappie.” Ninja is not so satisfied, and demands CHAPPiE learn what he needs in order to pull off the heist. Before leaving them, Deon identifies himself as CHAPPiE’s creator, laying down the two major rules of the ancient Ten Commandments for the boy: no stealing or killing.

 
As CHAPPiE grows over the course of the next few days leading to the heist, he sees much of the varied behaviors of human beings. Much of his exposure is to the cruel, but not so unusual. His childlike mind is unable to comprehend the extreme violence forced upon him, but his surrogate mother is a genuine comfort who reads to him and explains as best she can. Yolandi’s character shifts unbelievably from villain to likeable antihero as real feelings develop between the two. CHAPPiE’s attachments and intelligence grow at exponential rates, sparking interests in research and development, which must be juggled mentally with the choices set before that conflict with his creator’s rules. As tension continues to build, dangers become more and more apparent as chaos takes over the already corrupt Jo’Burg. It’s a race against time as CHAPPiE’s decisions will now shape not only the being he is becoming, but also the future he will affect.

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Most of the reviews for this film have been less than stellar. This is a super violent R-rated feature film (with a very gory climax) that would have found much more success as a Saturday morning cartoon serial (if those even still exist). By the time CHAPPiE has gained self-awareness, it’s a wonder his nose didn’t grow when he would tell a lie in the process. But for the presence of drugs, weapons, and a plethora of bad words, this would be perfect fanfare for kids. Potential toy marketing would also make for much better product placement than just SONY’s signature computer and gaming systems.

 
Another complaint: too many miscast actors, and too many liberties given that lead to poor acting throughout the film (less Jackman, who always shines). According to IMDb, a “breakdown of the relationship between Blomkamp and Ninja” may have been a contributing factor to this loss on screen. Copley did perform all of his parts on set before being optically composited (quite well) as the title robot, a nod to his previous work with Blomkamp in District 9 (still the reigning magnum opus on the repertoire of both).

 
On the other hand, Blomkamp’s previous feature films have followed this same build from boring and formulaic to engaging and entertaining. The flaws can easily be forgiven when the viewer is allowed to be immersed in the story, which borrows from many previous works, but is ultimately redeemed by the heart brought to it by compassion for the title character.

 
Much of the soundtrack is complemented nicely between music by Die Antwoord and a score by the always tremendous Hans Zimmer. Blomkamp and wife Terri Tatchell partnered once again on the script, which is terrific but for the minor kinks in certain character designs and development, as well as credibility of sets (seriously, the lead engineer only has a desk in the bullpen??). Last but not least, the visual effects collaboration between Image Engine and Weta Workshop continue to make leaps and bounds with the motion capture for CHAPPiE and Moose, along with the pyrotechnics and animation that bring a sense of real film magic, though it might take a trained eye to see at times (here’s a hint, consider shadowing and reflections of CHAPPiE – that was not all done with green screens).

 
While not a complete washout, this is mainly a film for those who are able to appreciate films like the “Bayformers” for what they were and not get lost in the areas where Blomkamp seems to be more about his vision than the bigger objective picture. Certainly this is not a hit, but it’s very far from a complete miss.

 
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Die Antwoord

About The Author

Contributing Writer

Herbert M. Shaw began writing movie reviews for his high school newspaper and hasn't stopped since. In 2005, his radio program "The Shaw Report" was started with WCDB Albany 90.9 FM in Albany, New York, and lives on with online streaming at www.wcdbfm.com. In addition to film and TV reviews, Herbert also covers a variety of pop culture events surrounding technology, gaming, and the arts. He has covered every single New York Comic Con since 2006, and writes an annual Oscar prediction guide.