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'Chappie,' A Fighting Robot In A Film That's A Disappointing Copy

Chappie (pictured above) is a police droid that is reprogrammed to think and feel for himself.
Columbia Pictures
Chappie (pictured above) is a police droid that is reprogrammed to think and feel for himself.

Didn't we just do this? Paul Verhoeven's 1987 futuristic satire RoboCop got a watery remake only a year ago. But if you took Chappie – the third trigger-happy dystopian sci-fi from Neill Blomkamp, the South African cowriter & director of District 9 – and slapped the title RoboCop on it, no one would bat an eye.

The only plot points Chappie doesn't crib from that spunky Reagan-era classic are the ones it appropriates from Short Circuit, a family comedy about an adorable military robot that becomes sentient and starts spouting quips learned from John Wayne movies. Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy were that film's name-above-title stars, just to give a temporal landmark. Replacing them in Blomkamp's new film are Ninja and Yo-landi Vi$$er – the South African rap duo Die Antwoord – playing the armed felons ("Ninja" and "Yolandi," respectively) who become sociopathic-but-loving parents to a childlike droid.

Short Circuit's Johnny Five was one of those gentle, self-aware robots, inclined to tolerate humankind's failings rather than hunt us to extinction. So, too, is Chappie, a battle-damaged "Scout" – a semi-autonomous, humanoid-model RoboCop – whom inventor Dev Patel rescues from the junk heap so he can use it to test a little no-big-deal project he's been tinkering with in his spare: artificial intelligence. (He seems to experience an epiphany while gazing at a poster of a cat wearing sunglasses.)

Chappie, the robot, gets smart.

Chappie, the movie, stays very, very dumb.

Dumb enough to believe that the CEO of a successful robotics firm (Sigourney Weaver, who has never looked so glamorously bored) needs to be told what artificial intelligence is, just for instance.

But Blomkamp sure did get some people show up for it.

No less an authority than Anderson Cooper delivers the traditional movie-opening expository newscast, which tells us that the deployment of the Scouts in Johannesburg has at last begun to reduce the city's horrific violent crime rate.

Hugh Jackman, sporting the worst haircut of his career but only the fourth-worst in this movie, is the other versatile star consigned in a one-note role. Entering with the immortal line, "I have a robot that is indestructible," he plays a solider-turned-weapons-designer employed by the same firm that makes the Scouts. Exactly, no exactly like Ronny Cox's character in RoboCop, he envies the success his rival (Patel) has had with his more humane, human-scale police droid, and he's determined to sell the authorities on his bigger, scarier "urban pacification" 'bot, even if he has to gin up a bloody crime wave to do it. Jackman's design ­– basically a Harrier jump jet with legs – is called The Moose. ("Deploy the Moose!" is not a pickup line, as used in this film.)

A scene in which the police brass tell Jackman they simply can't use a piece of hardware that destructive clearly isn't meant as a caustic joke. But it sure plays like one here in the U.S., where the militarization of police forces is widely perceived to have eroded relations between cops and the communities they're meant to serve. A smarter film would've found some dark humor and/or pathos in that oppressed/oppressor dynamic. (At least one smarter Johannesburg-set movie already did: It was called District 9.)

Chappie, the rabbit-eared robot, is performed by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley in a motion-capture suit. Even though we've seen this technology used to miraculous effect in The Lord of the Rings films, the recent Planet of the Apes pictures, and many others, the novelty of it – when paired a with a strong, specific performance like Copley's – hasn't quite worn off. Scenes wherein Copley's infantile 'bot teaches itself to mimic the swaggering speech and gait of its rap-star foster parents, or falls in love with a childrens' book, sound hoary; in fact, they're the best moments in this R-rated shoot-'em-up by far. (There's also a funny, er, carjacking montage.) Copley, Ninja, and Vi$$er – not to mention Patel, who urges his creation to "Nurture your creativity, Chappie!" – all rise above the lame material. And the mere sight of a battered police robot spray-painted with band logos and blinged out in flashy jewelry is a rich visual joke.

Compelling imagery has never been Blomkamp's problem, though. All three of his features have been feasts for the eyes, assuming your eyes hunger for firearms and mecha. But District 9 seemed to promise that his imagination and skill as a storyteller were just as acute as his visual genius. He had the expectation-setting chutzpah to introduce himself to the world with an original, morally disorienting, unexpectedly moving sci-fi action allegory that utterly nailed its fable-like finish. Its Best Picture nod was no aberration. With a liberal social conscience very publicly duking it out onscreen with a lust for high-tech death machines, Blomkamp looked like the next James Cameron. But after 2013's clunky Elysium and the even less inspired Chappie, he's looking more like the next M. Night Shyamalan: An auteur, sure – but one whose every subsequent effort feels like an increasingly faded copy of his prodigious first.

Just weeks ago, Blomkamp announced he will follow in Cameron's footsteps by re-teaming with Weaver for an Alien movie – one that may (though Blomkamp is playing coy on this point) pick up the story after Cameron's Aliens, retconning away the less beloved later sequels wherein Weaver's iconic heroine, Ellen Ripley, was killed off and then resurrected as a clone. Let's hope Blomkamp has a different trick up his leave. Cloning isn't working for him.

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