Chappie, director Neill Blomkamp’s newest film, is a mess. It’s wildly overstuffed with ideas, runs a bit too long, is tonally all over the place, and at times it feels like the film is going to simply come apart onscreen, right before your very eyes. It’s story — about a police robot given artificial intelligence by an earnest, sweet scientist named Deon (Dev Patel) — borrows heavily from several other AI-inspired films like Short Circuit and its ilk. Yet the story can’t settle into a consistent theme, notably when Chappie ends up in the hands of a trio of renegade miscreants — Yolandi and Ninja (otherwise known as South African rap/rave/crazypants group Die Antwoord) and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo, who some may remember from Season Four of The Walking Dead as Cesar). The film veers from charming to horrific and never settles on whether it wants to be a cautionary tale, a coming-of-age story, a morality play, a dystopian actioner, or anything in-between.
Chappie is also beautiful. Blomkamp has a gift for taking utter despair and turning it into something truly fascinating, and the world he’s created — a future Johannesburg drowning beneath a criminal siege and an increasingly corporate dictatorial rule — is a crumbling, chaotic, hopeless work of stunning and breathtaking art. From the wild fashions of its criminal underground to the startling, often gorgeous graffiti, to the terrific cinematography, it somehow takes something filthy and grimy and makes it beautiful. Simultaneously — and brilliantly — Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch make the clean suburban life of Deon and the shining, technological marvel of the factory he works at (under the supervision of Sigourney Weaver) appear drab and sterile, a lifeless, almost fascistic monument to human achievement.
Chappie can be wonderful. The robot, voiced by Sharlto Copley, is a marvel to observe, a lanky, gawky, overpowered child upon its awakening. And Blomkamp is to be lauded for not going the conventional route and having it simply learn about the world through the internet or television (save for one tiny, but effectively adorable scene).
Instead, Chappie learns about the world the hard way — through observation and experience. He’s reared in an abandoned warehouse by his criminal family, while also gaining insight from the visits of an increasingly desperate Deon, who is terrified of the child that was stolen from him, but equally terrified of any sort of confrontation. Yet Deon persists, wanting to teach his creation and witness his success. Ninja is the constant x-factor, an unhinged lunatic who loves as fiercely as he hates, who sees Chappie as an opportunity to escape instead of something alive. But it’s the strange, doll-like and mothering Yolandi (who is also perhaps the best performance in the film) who sees him for what he is, and helps him as best as she can to understand what it is to be alive, to make choices.
Chappie is crazy and silly and, unfortunately, often kind of stupid. The film is utterly bananas for so much of its two hours that one almost forgets that there is a serious story at play here. Hugh Jackman’s Vincent is another robotics creator, yet his is a hulking, mindless monster, bristling with firepower, and shrugged off as overkill by his superiors. But Vincent is a mad dog, a frothing, frenetic nutjob who will stop at nothing to get his pet project to succeed, terrorizing and torturing those who get in his path. Ironically, but deliberately, Ninja is similarly bonkers, a wiry, wild-eyed borderline-psychotic who carries a neon yellow machine gun and struts like a wannabe gangster on LSD. Even outside of them, there’s almost too much craziness for one film, some of it hilarious — Ninja and Yankie taking Chappie on a carjacking spree is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time — and some of it simply exhausting, particularly an earsplitting, completely excessive finale replete with gunfights and rockets and all-out bedlam that goes on for far too long. That’s the film’s undoing — its determination to wrap a blockbuster action film around what would have been far more successful as a quiet, smaller film. When the film explodes in gunfights and helicopter chases and its dizzying ending, I checked out completely. That’s not the film I was enjoying.
Chappie is tragic, amidst all of its gleeful, tongue-in-cheek humor and wondrous, wide-eyed awe. Its lows are brutal and unexpected, and there are moments of savage cruelty and viciousness that were totally unexpected. Copley’s depiction of Chappie himself is its own kind of seat-gripping terror, because when Chappie feels fear, it is fear, base and primal and gut-clenching. When he feels hurt, it is heartbreaking. It’s a solid depiction of artificial intelligence actually learning and feeling, and doing it with a terrible honesty, that I’ve seen on film. Chappie isn’t shown as an overdeveloped toy or an ignorant robotic mope, but as alive in the truest sense. It’s that life that makes his trials so difficult (particularly a brutal lesson with Ninja showing him the aftermath of a dogfight, and asking him which animal he wants to be). But that’s also part of the film’s undoing, because the shifts in tone are so radical as to inevitably become offputting.
Chappie is a wild, intense, sad, overwrought, deeply flawed, occasionally lovely film. It is thematically bursting at its seams, as if Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell simply had too many ideas, and a determination to get every last one of them in there. In the end, its weight is almost too much for it to bear, and its relentless pacing makes it hard to keep up with. It’s subplots, particularly one revolving around a cartoonish villain named Hippo as well as the one about the resentment of Jackman’s Vincent, feel excessive, and whatever purpose those elements serve could easily have been folded into the story in a less bloated fashion. The real tragedy is that Chappie, the robot, is amazing and charming and alive, and joyous to watch succeed just as he is saddening when he stumbles. And those who surround him, however crazy and obsessed they may be — Deon, Ninja, Yolandi, and an underused Yankie — are equally terrific and enjoyable. That is the best part of this story — that small, completely loony, dysfunctional, beautiful, fiercely loyal, loving, learning family. And if that family, devoid of the explosions and distractions and vapid excess, had been the film, it would have been marvelous. Instead, it’s the diamond in the midst of far too much rough, making audiences work far too hard to get to the good parts.