Chappie is a mitigated disaster, a bummer with a little asterisk. Most of the problem sticks to Neill Blomkamp, whose directorial plummet from the great District 9 through the bumpy road of Elysium has officially bottomed out. At least that’s what fan-folk hope; his next movie will be an Aliens sequel. Meanwhile, this film seems like it was written by a child and executed with something less than logic. It’s a cute robot story with graphic death dealing, a fable without ideas. Even more shocking is how abysmally Blomkamp regards the look of his film. The sight of Hugh Jackman in shorts with a mullet feels like audience abuse.
The story coughs up bits of RoboCop: A future South African metropolis successfully experimenting with robot police hits a snag when its number one tech Deon (Dev Patel) announces his creation of artificial intelligence. His boss Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) forbids it. Meanwhile creepy coworker Vincent (Jackman) wants to deploy a human-operated giant robot. Self-aware robot Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley) nonetheless gets loose, or rather, he gets hijacked by weirdo gangsters Ninja and Yolandi, who take over his daffy education. Sounds romantic? Blomkamp, whose earlier movies have been about the underclass rising up against the rich, has taken a cynical shift. The slum-dwellers here are freakazoids who would rather loot than liberate. Chappie’s combination of innocence and evildoing seems matched by the director’s new disillusionment with the unwashed. He makes the poor smelly.
Yet the one redeeming aspect of Blomkamp’s bizarre film is the use of consciously messy Ninja and Yolandi, better known as Cape Town rave-rappers Die Antwoord. The duo, soaking in the semi-satirical “dirty face” of South African zef stylings, is a subculture and sound worth pursuing. Their YouTube videos are far more interesting than this film. Blomkamp, for his efforts, seems to be exploiting zef, but it’s all lost in a maze of nonsense.