Dave White
Chappie Review

Dave's Rating:

1.5

i fink u fail

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) is a robot-child with an innocent, obedient nature, who is subsequently draped in chunky gold chains and trained with giant knives to behave like an alternate-world, robbery-minded member of Die Antwoord, as though that band had incorporated a mechanical Jar Jar Binks into their traveling carnival of weirdness and turned him into a walking advertisement for aggravated assault. I know, it sounds awesome.

Chappie, designed for use as a police robot in Johannesburg, but then assigned to be scrapped, is appropriated by robotics engineer Deon (Dev Patel) and re-booted with human consciousness, a machine with a soul. Standing in the way of Deon's secret pet project is a bullying co-worker with a militaristic agenda (Hugh Jackman, possessed by an evil mullet) and some scuzzy criminals (Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser) who just want Chappie to help them pull off a big heist.

For the uninitiated, Die Antwoord are South African hip-hop artists whose music involves rap, high-pitched singing, and the resurrection of buzzing, early 90s rave culture, and whose visual presentation is a glamorously dirty bathtub awash in crystal meth and prison tattoos, like Gummo you can dance to. They are fascinating, freakish, and defiantly their own idiosyncratic, ugly-haircutted selves. Conceptually, their casting in a futuristic sci-fi crime drama alongside a sentient robot, portraying parallel versions of themselves -- Crime Die Antwoord -- is a daring move from filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (who co-wrote with Terri Tatchell), a bold chance taken.

But they are not actors. For all their repellent anti-charisma and theatricality, appealing in its own small-doses way, they cannot carry a film as leads. Attitude and style are almost never a proper replacement for a convincing portrayal of an actual human being. What was required was a skillful extrapolation of the personas the pair have constructed as members of their own band. What's delivered is posturing and baby-talk. And don’t be fooled by the marketing campaign. This is not a movie starring Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver, and a robot who learns to believe in himself. This is a film starring Die Antwoord and a robot they makeover to perform carjackings. And the band isn't up to the task.

Neither is Chappie. Created to take a beating as a non-human arm of the law, there's never a moment of fear for the robot's safety; and Copley's performance, one learned, "gangsta" swagger and childlike innocence, all of which is meant to provoke empathy, tips the scale toward irritating cutesiness.

What's it all mean? Well, over the course of the action, the sweet-natured robot becomes a battled-over pawn in a variety of "nefarious purposes," the opposite of his maker Deon's art-and-beauty-filled intention. In Blomkamp's moral universe, now three films in, that is clearly a bad thing, but hardly revelatory as a stance. He's an admirably humanistic director with an eye for the cinematically ugly side of progress and technology, intent on dumping his characters into highly designed, painstakingly broken-down dystopias, hoping they'll find their way out and up through the excellent visuals. But all Chappie does is leave Blomkamp's wounded anti-heroes stranded in a pit of crumpled, metallic metaphor.

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