E.T. Meets Robocop Meets Hip-Hop in the Disappointing 'CHAPPiE'

by J.C. Macek III

8 June 2015

The character CHAPPiE itself is endearing, but the story and supporting characters of CHAPPiE ultimately fall flat.
 
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CHAPPiE

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo

(Columbia Pictures)
US DVD: 16 Jun 2015
UK DVD: 6 Jun 2015

Neil Blomkamp shot to the A-List when he directed a feature film based on his short film Alive in Joburg (2006). That feature film was known as District 9 (2009), which transcended its genre, earned $211 million USD against a $30 million USD budget, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, Including Best Picture.

After another successful and ambitious film called Elysium (2013), Blomkamp set his sights on adapting his first ever short film Tetra Vaal (2004) into a major feature film with hopes for similar success. To this end, Blomkamp teamed with his writing partner (and wife) from District 9, Terri Tatchell, as well as the star of District 9, Sharlto Copley, and proceeded to load the cast with notworthy stars like Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, and Sigourney Weaver.

The bonus features on the July 2015 Blu-ray of this film, CHAPPiE, further detail how personal a film this new adaptation was to Blomkamp. Parts of it were actually filmed in his childhood home, including the bedroom he grew up in. He took so much inspiration from the hip-hop band Die Antwoord, which he was listening to during the writing of this film, that he actually cast the two rappers from the band in major roles.

Unfortunately, while there is a lot to love about CHAPPiE, the film ultimately falls flat, collapsing under its own weighty ambition. The title character himself is one of a robotic police force in Johannesburg, South Africa, who are based on the same Robots from Tetra Vaal. These have made a ton of money for the company (somewhat cleverly called the Tetravaal Corporation) as led by Sigourney Weaver, but an ambitious inventor played by Hugh Jackman is passionately pushing his own monstrous crime deterrent, a bipedal, heavily-armed robot called MOOSE. Meanwhile, a young scientist played by Dev Patel strives to infuse a police robot with humanity.

That already sounds a lot like RoboCop with a smattering of RoboCop 2 thrown in, with a few minor inversions here and there. MOOSE even closely resembles a slightly uglier version of RoboCop’s ED-209.

When Patel’s character manages to perfect a conscious and self-aware (thus, living) artificial intelligence, he struggles to find a way to test this miracle on a Tetravaal robot. A series of (somewhat convenient) events leads to a damaged “droid” to receive the program. Unfortunately for everyone, this takes place while Patel is a captive of gang members Yolandi Visser and Watkin Tudor “Ninja” Jones playing slightly fictionalized (we hope) versions of themselves. Blomkamp didn’t even change the names; he loves Die Antwoord that much.

The title robot himself (as played by a motion-captured Sharlto Copley) is incredibly endearing, and almost impossible not to sympathize with. “Chappie”, as Yolandi names him, begins life (compellingly) as a super-intelligent infant with an off-the-charts intelligence and a body of steel. Like any little kid he is curious, impressionable, anxious, hopeful, scared, and desperately in need of guidance. As that guidance often comes from gang members Yolandi (“Mommy”) and Ninja (“Daddy”), Chappie is often guided to do things that aren’t the best.

This is the setup for what could be a very challenging movie that presents a lot of questions about life, humanity, and class, much as District 9 had done before. Further, this R-rated drama is not “toned down” for children like any given E.T. clone, which is what the film feels like quite often. At its best, CHAPPiE can be heartwarming and fascinating, especially when Blomkamp dares to disturb. Chappie’s growth is marked and marred by a series of traumas of the inner city, made worse by the fact that he looks like a police officer android, and an incredibly selfish and even sadistic “father figure”.

However, the challenging questions are few and far between, and Blomkamp instead seems to get lost in his own personal story, forgetting to open much of it for the audience at large. Many characters change like the wind, doing complete 180 degree turns in their personalities without warning or reason aside from plot contrivance. Further, while it is different and interesting to see Blomkamp set what could be a “cute little movie” in the inner city with hip-hop gangsters, the uniqueness of seeing a robot “little kid” walking around spouting profanity rapper slang gets old quickly. Chappie is still worth rooting for, and is arguably just about the only likeable and sympathetic character in the entire film, but there is a lot that could have better served this endearing character.

The film’s ending works hard to save the story, and while there is some triumph there, it ultimately collapses under its own weight. Of course, the actual theatrical ending is a lot more heartwarming than the deleted finale that we get on the Blu-ray. That said, the deleted ending does fit with the film slightly better. One has to wonder if studio intervention played a part.

This alternate finale is just one of many bonus features on the CHAPPiE Blu-ray. Like any strong Blu-ray release of an SFX heavy film, there are a lot of great documentaries about the making of the film. Fans of the character will enjoy watching Copley in a motion capture suit bringing Chappie to life on set. Audio commentaries and promotional material also grace the disc package. However, extras, by their very nature, should enhance the feature on the disc. In the case of the ambitious CHAPPiE, the bonus features actually outshine the feature, serving to show what the film might have been—and it could have been great.

Perhaps Blomkamp shot to the A-List a bit too quickly, and when it became time to invest in a risky vanity project, both the vanity and risk were a bit too great. CHAPPiE is a bit too personal and a bit too uneven to be the great film it had the potential to become.

After CHAPPiE, Blomkamp’s next project is the already greenlit re-teaming with Weaver, temporarily entitled Alien 5. Let us hope that the critics out there who have predicted that Blomkamp is on a downward spiral are mistaken. An ambitious project like CHAPPiE falling flat is merely disappointing. Another lackluster Alien sequel could be a tragedy.

CHAPPiE

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