This tin man has heart. Brains, however...
Special effects wunderkind Neill Blomkamp dazzled with debut District 9, but follow-up Elysium disappointed, failing to deliver the socially conscious themes and spectacular CGI action with the same keen sting. Chappie falls somewhere between the two – structurally very similar to District 9 (it’s even bookended by faux-documentary news footage and also based on one of Blomkamp’s previous shorts), it conjures an intriguing world, even if all its complicated parts never quite work in harmony.
Chappie wears its sci-fi influences on its sleeve, with The Terminator and RoboCop readily evoked. In a near-future Johannesburg (familiar Blomkamp territory), the police curtail rising crime with police-bots created by TetraVaal (the company name riffing on the original short). Designer Deon (Dev Patel) gives an automaton consciousness in an off-therecord experiment, resulting in Chappie (voiced and mo-capped by Sharlto Copley).
Copley’s infantile AI is a captivating creation. He’s believably youthful, and a surprising depth of feeling is mined from a couple of pivoting bars, bunny-like ears and an LED display. Brilliantly animated, he blends almost seamlessly with the real-world environment. Chappie’s goofy charm feels kid-friendly, and a softer certificate might have played to its strengths: the heavy-handed Pinocchio story never meshes with the darker subplots and third-act bloodletting.
The humans, meanwhile, are a mixed bunch. It’s fun to see Hugh Jackman suppressing his innate likeability as Deon’s dickish work rival, resentful because his own law-enforcement robot isn’t getting any attention (possibly because it looks just like ED-209 and no one wants another boardroom bloodbath).
It’s a shame that Blomkamp elects to have Chappie spend most of his formative years with (and get his awkwardly penile name from) a couple of irritating gangster punks played by South African hip-hop duo Die Antwoord, pushing more interesting characters – like Sigourney Weaver’s ballbusting CEO – into the background.
By the time the action kicks off in the third act, Blomkamp is playing to his strengths again, enriching explosive set-pieces with tension. But during the guns-blazing finale, the film’s awkwardly split personality raises its head for a couple of incongruous plot turns that don’t sit well with the gritty aesthetic. Like its title character, Chappie is stunning to behold and easy to like, but it’s still some way from fully developed.