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Movie Review: Chappie

Chappie is crappy.

Review by Matt Cummings

Director Neill Blomkamp has been charged with returning the Alien franchise back to James Cameron glory, but until then he's got another futuristic story to tell on Earth. Unfortunately saddled with an over-sexualized oddity that gets in the way of a potentially interesting story, Chappie is crushed under its own weight of random comedy, poor character development, and extremely bad haircuts.

The ultra-violent world of Johannesburg, South Africa is the stage for Blomkamp's latest, as robot police officers have taken over, leaving the city nearly crime free. But one robot - the oft-repaired Scout 22 - returns to the facility shot and dead to rights. When it's determined that its battery has been fused and can't be repaired, it's sent to the scrap, until its designer Deon (Dev Patel) rescues it. Already a success in developing the Scouts, he's working on an AI program hat would allow them to experience emotions, encouraging a 'No' from his boss Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ire of a rival designer (Hugh Jackman). But a twist is thrown into Deon's plan, as a gang of thugs lead by Ninja and Yolandi (playing themselves) overpower Deon and learn of his plan. With the child-like Chappie learning from questionable 'parents,' it's up to Deon to balance the robot's sense of right and wrong before his battery dies altogether.

Blomkamp is amazingly talented for creating the oddly-natured world of District 9; but he's lived off that success for too long, struggling in 2013's Elysium. No doubt, audiences will look at Chappie and wonder if his success was one-hit, and they could be right. Beyond the incessant oddity of it all (with full-tilt sexuality on display), the script by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell fails to use its gifts to tell a powerful story of humanity, instead settling on a silly tale of thugs using a robot to steal. Moreover, we never learn why Scout 22 is so prone to getting shot, none of which seems to impact the way Chappie performs. I kept thinking there was a missed opportunity to see those two AI's mix, something that was lost in the final cut.

The bad guys seem to have no backstory, often behaving like one-note thugs whose attachment to Chappie feel too self-serving . Rather than growing with the robot, they remain unchanged by Chappie. Why send him out to be pummeled by gangs and life in general, when he's more valuable as something you can control? Where is the nurturing Deon throughout entire sections of the second act? It's questions like these I found myself asking way too much throughout instead of enjoying the growth of the character and the bigger questions about what it means to be human. By the time we get to the end, it's like we've seen a weird conglomeration of Dredd, Robocop, Mad Max, and I Robot with weird costumes and haircuts that look like a cheaper version of The Fifth Element...and that's being nice.

Performances aren't awful, but no one here is particular interesting, as their backstories never come into play; Jackman comes off as a one-note bully whose jealously of Deon drives him to do something that mirrors the ED-209/Murphy battle from the original. How much more powerful would things have been if Chappie's growth and eventual moral conflict had taken center stage instead of the pastels and utter weirdness? Weaver shouldn't even be here, as her role is to simply chew up a couple of scenes without ever really exploring her ulterior motives. There's so many lost opportunities here, from our police chief never pondering if human cops are doomed to be replaced, to Chappie himself growing into sentience just as the battery fades. Sure, that screams Blade Runner, but imagine the consequences. It even approaches self-reverential without meaning to do so, featuring a scene straight out of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Meant to open a discussion about humanity, Chappie struggles with an inherent weirdness that will put off most potential moviegoers. And while the ending is unconventional, it's certainly not the best available. This is not a show for kids, with lots of phallic symbols everywhere, as well as a bizarre sexual challenge on Yolandi's shirt. Such style over substance isn't healthy for a film, making Blomkamp look more like an anti-human than a person wanting to press the boundaries of Science Fiction. This is the conflict behind Chappie, a potentially good video find that could have been so much more.

Chappie is Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity and has a runtime of 120 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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