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Review: ‘Chappie’ is jack-of-all trades, master of none (Includes first-hand account)

Neill Blomkamp has recently been entrusted with helming the reins on the next installment of the Alien franchise. This beleaguered movie property has sat dormant since the divisive Alien: Resurrection of the late 1990s, but after its spiritual predecessor Prometheus, fans have been hungry for an official sequel and may finally be getting their wish. Those same fans, however, would be wise to temper their enthusiasm upon watching Blomkamp’s latest foray into the science-fiction genre, Chappie.

After gaining critical notoriety with his sleeper hit District 9 in 2009, Blomkamp’s star took a bit of tarnishing after the misguided big-budget Matt Damon vehicle Elysium. With Chappie, Blomkamp attempts to return his storytelling back to its South African roots, but along the way the magic was lost, and the movie sacrifices imagination to lazily borrow from several other concepts that have been done significantly better in other forms.

The film is set in the not-so-distant future of Johannesburg (well before insectoid aliens try to inhabit its slums). Crime is rampant, with an average 300 murders a day; human law enforcement has proved ineffective. Drastic measures are taken to employ an arsenal of artificially-intelligent police droids that can get the job done with minimal casualties.

These droids are an instant success, all thanks to the brilliant mind of one engineer, Deon Wilson (played by Dav Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame). But Deon isn’t satisfied with creating obedient drones – his dream is to uncover the secret behind true artificial intelligence and bring sentience to machines. When Deon creates the program to accomplish this, his request to implement it are promptly shot down by his supervisor (played to ball-busting satisfaction by Alien‘s very own Sigourney Weaver). This leads to Deon taking matters into his own hands and going AWOL with out-of-commissioned, hard-luck drone #22.

Meanwhile, a ragtag group of thugs is forced to pull off an insurmountable heist in order to appease their drug lord boss (who simultaneously looks intimidating and harkens back to Technoviking in all of his muscle-bound glory). They devise a plan to kidnap Deon and order him to deactivate the police droids so hey can commit the crime unmolested. It is at this point that the gang (played by Ninja and Yolandi of the prolific rap sensation Die Antwoord) learn that the droids cannot be turned off, but that Deon will allow them to beta-taste his test AI program on the stolen drone.

What results is the birth of “Chappie”, a sensitive, impressionable, inquisitive robot that starts out essentially in its infant state and gradually learns through feedback from its environment, both positive and negative. But Deon is prevented from successfully nurturing its potential by the enterprising leader, Ninja, who sees Chappie as a means to accomplish the heist, and the two constantly lock horns on the best way to use the sentient robot.

To add even more layers of conflict, Deon’s actions are being closely monitored by the jealous rival robotics mind Vincent Moore, played unconvincingly by Hugh Jackman with a mullet and horrendous mom jeans. Vincent works for the same company as Deon and campaigns for his rival robot, the Moose, to be utilized, but the project is deemed superfluous overkill and scrapped. Vincent spends much of his screentime chewing scenery and antagonizing Deon in a way that would suggest for all of his technological savvy he’s yet to grasp the delicate art of subtlety.

As mentioned before, the movie borrows heavily from several already well-established properties. The high-octane action scenes give off a very Call-Of-Duty, first person-shooter vibe, which feels antithetical to what one may have hoped to experience in a film about a robot that could feel. The plot seems convoluted and is at times difficult to follow, and devolves from a somewhat believable drama with sci-fi elements to outright fantastical live-action anime by the time the movie reaches the third-act. The original score by Hans Zimmer is forced to compete with the soundtrack, which features songs exclusively from Ninja and Yolandi’s discography; at best they don’t fit the scene, at worst they detract from what’s actually taking place on the screen.

There are some bright spots in the movie. The CGI effects are very impressive and the interactions between Chappie and the other characters feel real and organic. The movie’s title character is endearing, voiced masterfully by Sharlto Copley. The acting is inconsistent but otherwise acceptable, and Ninja was surprisingly enjoyable as both the aggressive thug and the comic relief. There are even some genuinely touching scenes between Chappie and Yolandi (who Chappie refers to as “Mommy”), and a few particularly heart-wrenching moments, like where a poor defenseless Chappie is left to fend for himself when he’s set loose in the middle of Johannesburg. But those sincere moments are unfortunately marred by some glaring plot elements and blatant product placement from producer and distributor Sony. The dialogue is oftentimes sophomoric and unsuited for the film’s R rating; the amount of times the audience is expected to suspend their disbelief is downright insulting, to say the least.

Chappie is a film that held so much potential. But upon viewing, I can honestly say, like the main character itself, all that potential was left to languish. In the end, we’re left with a final product that is simply a corrupted, confused, incoherent mess.

Chappie will be in theatres May 6.

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