The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Chappie

Reviewed by Matt Denny.

Director Neil Blomkamp
Length 120 mins
Certificate 15
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article In a near future Johannesburg where robot cops police the streets, small-time crooks Ninja and Yolandi plan one final heist. In a plan to gain advantage over the police droids, the couple kidnap nerd-do-well robotics pioneer Deon (Dev Patel) - and with him a clapped out police 'bot reprogrammed with Deon's newly invented A.I. software. The newly christened Chappie might be the first robot sophisticated enough to be able to think and feel for himself, but he's still essentially a child. While Chappie grows and learns with his new family, Deon's colleague and rival - the magnificently be-mulleted and staunchly anti-A.I. Vincent (Hugh Jackman) - becomes increasingly suspicious of Deon's behaviour.

Chappie is a really odd film. On paper, it could be a heart-warming Spielberg inspired, eighties nostalgia piece, a homage to the likes of Short of Circuit, exploring themes of family and growing up. Alternatively, Chappie could be a Verhoeven-esque postmodern sci-fi romp, gleefully skewering such comfortable notions. Chappie is neither of these things. Chappie is both of these things. It's patchy, abrasive, and a bit of a mess. It's also joyful, enthusiastic, and full of warmth. There are moments in Chappie that are utterly fantastic in themselves, but the film never really coheres.

Chappie is great fun to watch. The film has an ugly, lovely aesthetic that infuses a world familiar from District 9 with a vibrant day-glo craziness. The film is also full of incident, excess and a fair helping of delightful silliness. Whilst this silliness is a key source of enjoyment (see, for example Hugh Juckman's remarkable mullet and exquisite shorts) it's the quieter character led moments that are most satisfying. The casting of Die Antwoord's Yo-Landi and Ninja unquestionably contributes to the film's oddness, compounded by the metafictional fiat of having them portray characters named Yolandi and Ninja. However, both deliver strong performances and while Yolandi is perhaps the more natural, Ninja's perfomative swagger is appropriate to the character. Ninja also lends a convincing level of menace to scenes framing him as an emotionally abusive parent.

For all this though, I'm not really sure Chappie works. I have the sense that there is perhaps rather a lot of Chappie on the cutting room floor. I'm left with a lingering sense that there is a whole middle section missing from the film. I'm also struggling to find a motivation for Hugh Jackman's character that goes beyond “He is Australian”. The film also engages with the issues of artificial intelligence in a manner so traditional it might be deliberately retro. Compared to Ex Machina or even Transcendence, Chappie isn't really bringing anything new to the table in regards to the representation of A.I. This is a real shame, both considering Blomkamp's previous record for pushing the boundaries of sci-fi filmmaking and the fantastic mo-cap performance from Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley.

All things considered, Chappie is not the train wreck many have made it out to be, but neither is it the overlooked masterpiece of 2015. It's a flawed film that doesn't hold up to much post-viewing scrutiny, but its great fun in the moment. Perhaps more importantly, it's a surprisingly warm film that has its heart in the right place.

Alternate Take available here

This review was published on March 29, 2015.

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