‘Chappie’ Review: Short Circuit Too
We sure do place a lot of importance on originality don’t we? As though recognizing the influence of old art somehow nullifies new art altogether? (Unless Quentin Tarantino does it, of course. Then that’s him being genius.)
Yes, it’s folly to complain about new stories just because they owe their existence to old ones, but sometimes a film that pays constant homage to other movies only leads to unwanted distraction. Case in point: a film like Chappie, which so eerily evokes our collective and vivid memories of Short Circuit, Short Circuit 2 and sometimes RoboCop that Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi spectacular plays a little bit more like a retro mash-up than a fresh and exciting melody. But hey, at least it was mixed by Die Antwoord.
The South African rap-rave icons known as Die Antwoord play themselves in Chappie, which is set two years in the future, when Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser have fallen on hard times. So they commit armed robberies wearing their old booth merch in order to pay back their debt to a violent sociopath, who appears to have been slapped on the back of the head during an Oliver Reed impersonation and just got stuck that way.
That would be plot enough, except a brilliant robotics expert named Deon (Dev Patel) has also invented an army of robot drones that wage war on crime in South Africa alongside human police officers. So Die Antwoord kidnaps Deon and forces him to program their own battlebot to give them an edge in urban warfare. But then it turns out that Deon had programmed this particular robot with artificial intelligence, so Ninja and Yo-Landi are forced to raise the lovable automaton – named Chappie (played by Sharlto Copley and about 200 VFX animators) – and gradually transform him into a hardened criminal through questionable parenting and outright deception.
And that actually sounds pretty damned original. It would even play that way if Die Antwoord were the main characters in Chappie, but they’re not. Instead Deon takes center stage, and the story of a robot infused with human feelings starts to feel a hell of a lot like Short Circuit. A militaristic douchebag named Vincent (Hugh Jackman, always in little shorts) starts hunting Chappie down like G.W. Bailey, Deon tries to save him like Steve Guttenberg and Die Antwoord tries to treat him like a real person like Ally Sheedy, except if she were a pair of hardened criminals-slash-former international music superstars.
Throw in some awkward attempts to trick Chappie into committing crimes by taking advantage of the robot’s innocence, like in Short Circuit 2, and a sudden climactic appearance of ED-209 on steroids and you’ve got a terribly familiar story, a Frankenstein cobbled together out of highly recognizable parts. The most interesting and unusual aspects of the film, Die Antwoord themselves, are but a surreal and incongruous side plot instead of the focus of the story.
But Neill Blomkamp knows how to direct the very familiar film he’s making. Chappie is impressively realized and often very exciting, and Sharlto Copley & Company do an excellent job of making Chappie himself seem like an intriguing and believable character. Blomkamp is usually excellent at raising pointed questions with his sci-fi movies (see also: District 9 and Elysium), and here he poses smart queries about the nature of human consciousness. And then he answers those queries, in a way that’s either extremely cool or totally a cop out, depending on how invested you actually were in them.
Chappie is well made enough to earn some avid fans, particularly if they either haven’t seen the movies that Chappie owes its very existence to, or if they simply don’t care that Blomkamp’s film is a total pastiche. The action is incredible and the visual effects are impeccable. The sense of intensity that Blomkamp brings to Chappie starts to infect you after a while, and you get swept up in its fast-paced shenanigans. But it was extremely close to becoming something impressively new and unusual, evoking earlier films without outright lifting their storylines and imagery. And for some audiences that’s bound to be a little more frustrating than fun.