Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Another film I caught at the discount theater a couple of weeks ago. It's definitely better than Jupiter Ascending, but that's not saying much. This is the second weak film in a row from Blomkamp after his impressive debut with District 9. I would have been more disappointed if I had paid even regular matinee price. The main problem stems from not knowing what his intentions were. Was this supposed to be a serious study of a possible AI, a look at personal arrogance and corruption in the corporate world, or an indictment (or celebration) of gang culture? If mainly about an AI, then a sub-theme would have to be the nature versus nurture debate.
Sharlto Copley has appeared in all three of Blomkamp's feature films, but here it is only with motion-capture work as the title character, and if his voice was used it was mechanically altered. Dev Patel plays Chappie's creator, and he's the only sympathetic character in the film. Jackman is the developer of a rival robotic device that has been removed from police and military service in favor of the first generation of robots Patel has created. Chappie is unique though, with a new operating system installed after he was removed from service and scheduled to be scrapped. This part of the story parallels the short story "Lenny" from Asimov's I, Robot, since the new software essentially turns Chappie into a child who will learn from experience rather than direct programming. Too bad he fell in with the wrong crowd.
There are a few humorous moments when Chappie mimics the speech patterns and body mannerisms of the thugs who take him under their wing. It might have been even funnier if I could have understood even half of what they were saying, but their South African accents are so strong as to be almost unintelligible, and they were probably also using slang with which I'm not familiar anyway. If I ever watch this again on DVD or maybe Netflix (but I probably won't), hopefully subtitles will be available. The odd thing is the theatrical feature did include subtitles for another gang leader, and yet I understood him much better than I did the ones who were shaping Chappie's character. Both Weaver and Jackman are wasted; she's just the corporate lackey who follows policy even if she doesn't understand it, and he's petulant because his invention is sidelined for another. Almost anyone could have filled those roles as written, and unknowns could have brought the budget down even more than the relatively low $50 million.
One of the few positives is the cinematography and production design. It's dark and gritty as befitting the Johannesburg setting and the seedy gangster characters, similar to the look of District 9 and the first half of Elysium. I wonder if Blomkamp will always use this look and style of story or if he is talented enough to branch out in other directions. It will probably suit him well for his next project, which is an extension of the Alien franchise. That doesn't interest me so much, but if he can step up his game in what will probably be a higher budget production he might still be a director to keep on the radar. If not, I'll stop anticipating his work.
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