“Chappie” Movie Review

     Writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s third feature film, “Chappie”, follows similar tropes as his previous two features “District 9” and “Elysium”.  Blomkamp, whose press junkets for “Chappie” were overshadowed by the announcement that Fox had approved his pitch to write and direct a new “Alien” film, specializes in dirty, grungy, dystopian sci-fi type fare that tends to have an underlying preachy message behind it.  His 2009 Best Picture nominated “District 9” is, perhaps, the best example of this as the film, which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, followed a segregated alien race within the city and was a clear parallel to the country’s long standing real life Apartheid policies of nearly 50 years.  While Blomkamp’s sophomore effort, “Elysium”, intended on making a statement about universal health care, the film’s narrative was bogged down with an overly conventional story and elaborate action set pieces, rather than allowing the characters to interact in a way that presented more naturally what it is the filmmaker was trying to say.  “Chappie” falls somewhere between both of them, but tends to fall more in line with the later.

     With the director’s previous efforts displaying a compelling level of creativity and “District 9” an example of masterful storytelling, I was quite surprised to find “Chappie” so dependent on a number of rehashed science fiction concepts and how it comes dangerously close to ripping off previous robot related films, namely Paul Verehoven’s “Robocop”.  Is Blomkamp merely paying homage to classic films or is his intention to subtly remake certain elements of those films in a manner he sees fit?  “Chappie” tells the story of a robot that is part of an army called “Scouts”, who have joined the Johannesburg police department in an effort to reduce crime.  When their effectiveness is seen in numbers, the company hits it big as orders from JPD as well as other departments around the world begin to come in.  Blomkamp and his writing partner and wife, Terri Tatchell, follow the “Robocop” narrative almost to a tee in order to tell the initial parts of the story.

     Faux newscasts are shown to deliver the media perspective on the Scout program, which was a hallmark of several Verehoven films namely “Robocop” and “Starship Troopers”.  The company, Tetravaal, has developed several projects intended to help law enforcement combat the rising crime rates.  In “Chappie”, two competing engineers, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who is the creator of the highly successful robot Scouts, and Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose “Moose” robot has been put on the back burner because of the company’s success with Deon’s project, lock horns for nearly the entire film.  They verbally spar with one another, but of course Vincent, who seems to have an evil streak in him, brings things to a more physical level while also looking to sabotage Deon’s work in an effort to get his own program online. This, along with a constant effort to get the ultimate approval from the company’s CEO, Michelle Bradley, who is played by none other than Sigourney Weaver and is given absolutely nothing to do that is worth her presence.  Sound familiar?  It should, since the Dick Jones and Bob Morton characters in “Robocop” essentially carried on with the same conflict with a similar result.  To make matters worse, Vincent’s “Moose” is a near replica of Dick Jones’ own “ED-209” with a decorative desert camo paint job.  That is until it utilizes its ability to fly at which time I was immediately reminded of Dr. Hans Reinhardt’s robot monster “Maximilian” from “The Black Hole” with his Swiss Army Knife gadget arms.  Seeing all of this unfold on screen begs the question:  Is it even possible to do anything original anymore?

     The parallels between “Chappie” and “Robocop” could continue as we have films that feature robots being integrated into police forces that are combatting crime in cities ridden with endless amounts of fifth and humans who have devolved lower than animals, but perhaps it is best to take a look at some of the film’s merits instead.  In similar fashion to “Avatar” and the recent “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, Blomkamp employs a motion capture technique in order to render a very life like and photo realistic “Chappie” that engaged the actors on set by way of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley acting and voicing the part completely.  The wizards then painted the robot armor over the actor in post and the result is actually quite amazing as the interactions between the actors is seamless.  In addition, Blomkamp actually gains ground in the storytelling department when the film nears the end of the final act by exploring the possibilities of actually transferring one’s being from a human body to that of a robot body.  After nearly two hours of borrowing from others while masking those deficiencies with several run of the mill action sequences, he somehow manages to cap the film off with a concept that was actually thought provoking.

     Sure there is plenty not to like here, but is it possible “Chappie” was intended to have a meaning that many aren’t picking up on?  Something that crossed my mind came to light primarily because I recently watched the HBO series “The Wire” and have long thought about how important a child’s upbringing is and how easily children are influenced by those closest to them.  When Chappie is brought to life by his maker, Deon, he is soon forcibly handed over to a couple of thugs that intend to use him and his abilities for a massive $20 million heist.  As played by a couple of real life South African punk rock rappers named “Ninja” and “Yo-landi” (those are their real life names too apparently), these criminals become the pseudo parents of Chappie and begin teaching him the skills and attitude needed for a life of crime.  Just as those kids in “The Wire”, Chappie has no chance at being successful in life because his biggest influences fail to lay a foundation for anything positive.  Even when his “maker”, which could be seen as the God people believe in, tries to give him a moral compass, it is the parents who prevail in shaping the kind of person/robot Chappie becomes.  If this is what Blomkamp intended to tell us, than maybe there is more to this film than the people who are ignoring it and the critics who are blasting it had originally thought.  GRADE: C