“Chappie” is a painful look at our unfortunate filmmaking future: a mashup of everything that is currently wrong in Hollywood. It’s a Frankensteinian playbook on imitation and an almost frightening window into the unoriginal inner workings of director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”). This movie should only be viewed as an educational exercise. Those looking to be entertained will be left wanting.
The first troubling aspect about “Chappie” is how recycled it feels. This is a movie so steeped in homage that it’s practically plagiarism: remember when you watched “Avatar” and couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a blue-cat-alien-people version of “Dances With Wolves” and “Fern Gully.” “Chappie” makes “Avatar” look subtle. It’s basically the robotic, lubricated love child of “Short Circuit” and “RoboCop” (which itself just got a remake last year). “Short Circuit” was about a robot that gains consciousness, and “RoboCop” was about a police officer struggling to determine if he was more man than machine. “Chappie” marries the two concepts into something that manages to be less entertaining than both.
It’s the future, and once again everything sucks. Crime is rampant and the world needs a new kind of law enforcement technology. One company steps up and creates a robotic police force that for some reason looks like a robotic version of the rabbit from “Donnie Darko.” A well-intentioned programmer Deon (Dev Patel) is working to create a groundbreaking form of artificial intelligence: one that will allow a robot to think, feel and even write poetry. It will be the kind of independently thinking machine that gives scientists erections and makes the rest of humanity nervous.
His boss (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t quite see the benefit of a thinking, feeling robot. They’re a company who makes robot soldiers. The stock isn’t exactly going to soar if they start mass-producing robot versions of Robert Frost. Despite rejection from his corporate overseers, our programmer friend decides to take one of the robots and work on his experiments from home in a plot that feels cribbed from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Unfortunately, Deon has been targeted by some gangsters who are looking to figure out how to turn off the droid police units. The discarded robot police unit is assembled by Deon while held captive by a multiculturally diverse gang of ne’er-do-wells and given the name “Chappie.”
In its infancy, Chappie is little more than a frightened child. With its consciousness programming, the lil’ guy is hungry to learn. Unfortunately, he’s being held captive by the a collection of thugs who look like they were borrowed from every 1990s cyberpunk direct-to-video disaster. There’s an entire subplot involving gang debt and using Chappie to help pull off crimes. There’s also an even less-engaging plot with Deon’s interoffice rival Moore (Hugh Jackman), who believes the future isn’t robot police droids but bigger, more destructive robot police droids that are controlled by humans wearing virtual reality gear. None of it really amounts to much. Sporting a mullet and cargo shorts, Jackman feels wasted in this movie. I’m not sure why every character looks like a 1990-version of what people thought the future would be. It’s just another odd choice in a movie filled with questionable, senseless decisions.
There is so much about “Chappie” that rubs me raw. So much of it is heavily borrowed, if not downright stolen, from other, better movies. There’s a thin line between homage and theft, and Neill Blomkamp does the a mambo all over it. He’s a competent filmmaker when it comes to delivering thrilling action, but he’s terrible with actors. Sigourney Weaver is so bad it’s mindblowing. Blomkamp greatest sin, though, is making the same basic movie three times. Everything in “Chappie” has been seen before in “District 9” and “Elysium.” He keeps making the thing over and over again, and it all ends with people in hydraulic exoskeletons blowing shit up real good.
Ultimately, “Chappie” is a movie by a director who is copying a half-dozen previously released, well-known science-fiction classics and doing a copy-and-paste job into his own tired formula. “Chappie” might be the most unoriginal movie I’ve ever seen.
Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman
Directed by Neill Blomkamp