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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Chappie movie review: robot icks

Chappie red light

A morally muddled mess that is convoluted in plot and appallingly simplistic in its themes. I am a sad geek today.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’ve been a fan of Neill Blomkamp’s films

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If a mashup of 80s robot flicks Short Circuit and RoboCop sounds like a bad joke, well: almost. Chappie is often risible, but it’s more sad than anything else. Not the good kind of sad: this is not a poignant or touching film, though it clearly hopes to be. No, Chappie makes me sad because the promise that South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp displayed with his brilliant District 9 and which hung over his flawed but still daring followup Elysium is nowhere to be found here. Chappie is a morally muddled mess that is convoluted in plot and appallingly simplistic in its themes. It wants us to feel emotion that it doesn’t know how to earn. And perhaps most mysteriously, it pushes us to ponder, by the end, that maybe the character it clearly posits as the villain is the one who got closest to the truth of the matter under consideration.

It’s almost cruel and it’s definitely stupid, what robotics engineer and AI hobbyist Deon Wilson (Dev Patel: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Last Airbender) does, although the movie doesn’t seem to recognize either the cruelty or the stupidity. When his boss — Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver: Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Cold Light of Day), CEO of military contractor Tetra Vaal — tells Deon, for perfectly legitimate reasons, that No, he cannot test out his just-finished AI program in one of the company’s smart but not sentient police androids, Deon goes ahead and grabs a damaged unit from the trash compactor and does it anyway. Though it’s not quite that straightforward: on the way to his homebrew Singularity, Deon gets carjacked by a couple of criminals who figure he, as designer of the police robots, has a remote control that can turn them all off, the better for them to pull a big heist so they can pay back the druglord they pissed off. And when he insists that such a device does not exist, he convinces these skeezeballs to let him give them his sentient robot, in exchange for not killing him.

Think about this: Deon hands over his baby — literally his baby; the robot will grow and learn like a human infant, although much much faster, which seems scientifically plausible — over to a couple of violent sociopaths to raise up as one of their own. This is cruel to the AI and stupid for the people of Johannesburg, what with an almost indestructible android weapon now in the hands of bad guys who have no compunction about killing. (If the mock-documentary District 9-esque opening sequence had hoped to convince us that the good people of Johannesburg are unfairly under siege by the robots cops, it fails. The impression we get is only that for-real criminals are being stopped in their crimes. So the AI cop robot’s adoption is no strike against an oppressive government or anything like that, and these bad guys are no rebels or Robin Hoods.) If we’re to feel toward Chappie, as the AI robot is christened, what the film wants us to feel toward it/him, and react as if it/he is an emotional, sensitive being who is intelligent on a human level, then the movie needs to recognize that its entire premise is that a vulnerable, credulous, naive, trusting being has been left in an abusive situation. And it doesn’t.

Instead, Chappie thinks Chappie’s situation is, for the most part, hilarious. The criminals, Ninja and Yolandi, are played by a pair of South African rappers who perform under the name Die Antwoord, and the characters share the actors’ names. Which is a bit weird, unless the performers are happy with being likened to violent sociopaths. I did not learn who these two are before I saw the film, but I could see that something was off about how they are depicted: they are not sympathetic in the least, and yet we are obviously intended to find them cool and awesome. We’re supposed to go “Awww” when Chappie (a CGI creation, with voice and motion-capture provided by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley: Maleficent, Europa Report) starts calling them “Mommy” and “Daddy.” We’re supposed to find it funny when “Daddy” gives Chappie some bling and some “tattoos” (graffiti spray-painted on its/his titanium chassis) and teaches it/him how to shoot a gun and how to act “gangsta.” Chappie learns how to fist-bump and “adorably” regurgitate “motherfucker!” as “fuck-mother!” Just like Baymax! Well, the fist-bumping, anyway.

I wish I knew what Chappie thinks it is trying to say. Even my tiny grasping at something to like — Hey! At least it’s a would-be blockbuster that is not U.S.-centric! — ends up getting a smack: Why do the robot Johannesburg cops speak with American accents? Why do they kinda sound like Peter Weller? (I’m sure I know why.) As if the director is deliberately rejecting my fangirl love, Blomkamp even manages to get the first-ever bad performance out of Hugh Jackman (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Prisoners), as another Tetra Vaal engineer, one trying to push his human-controlled ED-209 as an alternative to Deon’s android cops; even in bad movies, Jackman has never struggled like he does here to make his character plausible. (Small spoiler: He’s kind of the villain. It does not suit him the way that Conflicted Antihero does.)

I am a sad geek after Chappie. I really wanted to like this. I think I’ll just go watch District 9 again.


Chappie is an expansion of Blomkamp’s short film “Tetra Vaal,” which you can watch on YouTube.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Chappie for its representation of girls and women.


red light 1.5 stars

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Chappie (2015)
US/Can release: Mar 06 2015
UK/Ire release: Mar 06 2015

MPAA: rated R for violence, language and brief nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, bloody violence)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Hank Graham

    Yeah, that’s the film I saw, too. :(

  • :-(

  • Beowulf

    Sounds like the movie lives up to its title — one of the most head-shaking monikers I’ve ever seen slapped on a film. I mean, what the heck is it supposed to mean, anyway?

  • LaSargenta

    Shit. :-(

  • Danielm80

    It’s a UK and Australian word for “bloke” or “fellow.” It’s a variation on calling someone a “chap,” like changing “Miss” to “Missy.” I guess they thought it was better than calling the robot “Little Guy.”

    When it’s spelled “chappy,” though, it has lots of interesting slang meanings, including, relevantly: something that is disliked.
    Some of the other slang meanings are here:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Chappy

  • “The criminals, Ninja and Yolandi, are played by a pair of South African rappers who perform under the name Die Antwoord, and the characters share the actors’ names. Which is a bit weird, unless the performers are happy with being likened to violent sociopaths. I did not learn who these two are before I saw the film, but I could see that something was off about how they are depicted: they are not sympathetic in the least, and yet we are obviously intended to find them cool and awesome. ”

    This is pretty consistent with Die Antwoord’s image afaik. I’m sure they’re delighted to be linked with violent sociopaths.

  • Patrick

    Good SF movies are few and far between these days. Well, I guess I’ll pass on “Chappie”. Thank the Maker for “Predestination”!

  • Oh dear.

  • Beowulf

    Slang is so local. I can understand why “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” wasn’t a good title for Great Britain.
    Oh, and the Chevy Nova in Spanish countries translates as “doesn’t go.”

    I imagine when “Psycho” was retitled “The Boy Who Was His Mother” in certain countries, you could enter at any time once the film began.

  • Danielm80

    I sometimes want to tell Internet trolls to bite the wax tadpole.

  • Bluejay

    I like the story that the slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi!” was understood in China as “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From the Dead.”

    And its status is “Undetermined” in Snopes, so that means it must be true. :-)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    So, is Niell Blomkamp becoming this decade’s M. Night Shyamalan? Do we need to stage an intervention before he manages to outdo Alien: Ressurection and the A v. P series in the wrong way?

  • Overflight

    So in other words, they’re South Africa’s answer to the Insane Clown Posse? Are we going to see these guys make their equivalent to Big Money Hustlas/Rustlas?

  • Overflight

    Somewhere in Hollywood, Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof are sitting in a dark room in front of a computer monitor snickering to themselves.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Why? Scott and Lindelof never made any kind of Alien movie.

    Never.

  • Bewulf

    I’m not trolling — I financially support MaryAnn’s site every month.

  • Overflight

    Learned this from a bunch of comments in other reviews: Apparently the male half of DA was so repulsive (harassment of female crew members, drugs, the works), that Blomkamp started rewriting the script on the fly just to get him out of his set. Might explain the resulting product:

    http://www.channel24.co.za/Movies/News/Die-Antwoords-Ninja-is-pure-evil-20140203

  • Danielm80

    No, you’re obviously not a troll. You’ve been posting here for ages. But you seem to be in the minority this week, based on the responses to Kingsman and It Follows. I wish some of those commenters would bite the wax tadpole.

  • SaltHarvest

    “Why do the robot Johannesburg cops speak with American accents?”

    That one shouldn’t be that hard.

  • Ah, yes. You know those black metal bands who only pretend to be terrible people ironically but then it turns out that they really are terrible people?

    Die Antwoord isn’t metal but I believe the comparison stands. I imagine they’re in the movie because people outside South Africa have heard of them.

  • Tonio Kruger

    “Why do the robot Johannesburg cops speak with American accents?”

    Revenge for Lethal Weapon II? :-)

  • David

    If it wasn’t for the incompetent dicks at Microsoft, we’d be getting a Neil Blomkamp directed Halo movie instead of this.

  • I’ve hated the title since the first time I heard it. It really turned me off of the movie, because it’s just so dumb sounding.

    Still, a bad title wouldn’t keep me from a good film. Too bad that’s not what this appears to be.

  • Jeffrey R. DeRego

    I liked it more than you did, MaryAnn, but I saw more of the sly satire of gun culture in it than you did I think. It’s not great, but I did enjoy it. I am also a huge nerd for Die Antwoord, so getting see and hear so much of them was a treat for me too.

  • Dan

    Actually, you couldn’t be any further from the truth; die antwoord is *entirely* an act that plays off south african stereotypes, and they play the role so well that most people who interview them don’t even realize. the fact that they are university educated, middle class folk like “us” is blatant once you realize it’s an act, but what should have given it away is the fact that they are referring to him as “ninja”, which is his die antwerd persona.

    it’s sort of like talking to a person in blackface and asking them what it was like picking cotton growing up

  • To be honest, I don’t see how what you’re saying contradicts what I’m saying.

    To bring this back on topic a little bit, MAJ: do the changes Overflight mentioned come across in the movie? That is to say, could you tell something was amiss?

  • So much is amiss that that did not stand out.

  • How is the film satirizing gun culture?

  • Beal Janssen

    Another poopy review from PoopyPants Turdpantson

  • RogerBW

    Did you ever like M. Night? Even his early films didn’t do it for me. Whereas District 9 had its flaws but was basically good.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I like “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, and about 2/3 of “Signs”. He lost me at “The Village”.

    “District 9” is well made for the sort of low-budget effort that it is. “Elysium” looked good, but was too message-heavy, and suffered too many errors of plot logic (kind of like “Interstellar” in that way).

  • RogerBW

    Fair enough. I found The Sixth Sense so heavy-handed and obvious about its Big Twist Ending that I couldn’t see any other virtues it might have had.

  • Dissonant Robot

    Finally saw Chappie! It’s super hard for me to look at this movie objectively because I adore robots and I’m also a huge fan of Die Antwoord. They’re pals with Neill Blomkamp and have been trying to work together on a film for a while now, so it was neat too see it finally realized (Ninja was supposed to star in Elysium but turned it down because he had a condition that it be filmed in South Africa). Their aesthetic was all over the movie…all the walls were painted with their unique style of graffiti and pretty much all of the soundtrack music that wasn’t Zimmer came from their albums. I mean…they even wore t-shirts with their names and faces on them. As a fan of the band I loved it, but…I did constantly wonder if it was the right choice for the film…honestly it probably wasn’t.

    As much as I personally loved the movie I think this review does a great job highlighting all the problems with it. I feel like it was so, so close to being a true classic…but instead is destined to be a cult hit that appeals to a much smaller audience.

  • Dissonant Robot

    For what it’s worth, Ninja addressed the rumors about his behavior. Apparently they came from a tabloid that has a history of attacking the band. As a fan who has seen many interviews and candid footage of them, those rumors didn’t really make sense. (They’re also both quite savvy about managing their brand and probably wouldn’t do anything to damage that.)

    http://boingboing.net/2015/03/17/die-antwoords-ninja-replies.html

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    What the hell did I just read?

  • LaSargenta

    He said, he said.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Yeah, but what did he say?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I have to tell you, as someone with vary little opinion or interest in Die Antwoord or Ninja, this is less than compelling. I get that Mr. Jones is writing in character as Ninja (of Die Antwoord, not necessarily the “Ninja” character from “Chappie”). But that doesn’t help the case that he’s addressing concerns or rumors. The fact the he refuses to break character indicates, to me, that he doesn’t take the rumors at all seriously. I agree that he’s savvy about brand management, because that’s exactly what this article is: naked brand management, which does not inspire a sense of candor from him.

  • Dissonant Robot

    That’s definitely a valid concern. The problem they have is that neither of them have ever, in any interview or appearance, broken character. Honestly sometimes I wonder how much is even an act and how much is genuine, I have a feeling their real personalities aren’t that far off from the personas they play, minus the “we’re super tough & scary” part.

    Obviously this is literally a “he said, she said” situation, but do I think the fact that all of the negative press does seem to come from just one source is worth noting.

  • Overflight

    I don’t understand why calling him “Ninja” instead of his real name is a sure fire indicative that it’s an act. So many actors and performers who don’t engage in Sacha Baron Cohen-esque alter egos have stage names.

  • Tomboy

    I guess everyone is different. I absolutely loved this film.

    I left the cinema with the distinct impression the director was trying to make a movie where the robot was more human than the humans (the robot was more associated with the traits we like to believe we possess). In the beginning, Jackman’s characters says “My Moose robot is better because it’s controlled by a thinking, moral human being”. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Human’s have a very overinflated sense of their own morality. Look at all the nasty comments people make to each other online without a second thought, and then they think they’re moral enough to control what is essentially a robot weapon of mass destruction?

    Even the robot cops in this film perform their duty better than the human cops can, and they only fail because a vengeful human being interferes (they don’t go psycho on their own or anything which you’d normally see in a sci-fi movie).

    I also have to disagree that this movie doesn’t invoke emotion. I found it incredibly, incredibly sad. Essentially, the viewer is introduced to a sweet, innocent robot baby and has to watch the next 90 minutes of him getting degraded, abused, and having his dreams crushed at every turn of the way.

    My (personal) opinion is that the people who are going to enjoy this film the most are people who have experienced hardship and suffering themselves, because I thought it was a rather honest and sad portrayal of growing up in a tough world where the traits that make up what we call “humanity” aren’t actually valued at all in human society. I’m also not certain the director intended the humour to be “funny”, I think the humour was intended to be quite bitter.

    I honestly can’t believe that movies like Cinderella and Girlhouse get almost universal acclaim, yet Chappie is considered crap. I thought Chappie was surprisingly bitter, but definitely not crap. Rotten Tomatoes is calling a serial killer flick in which a house of girls gets dispatched in gory ways by a lonely male killer and eventually dies at the hands of the lead female character (Girlhouse) a highly original film, while Chappie has supposedly “been there, done that”. Really? Well, I’ve never seen a girl like Yolandi in a blockbuster film before.

    Anyway, just my opinion folks :) It’s OK if we disagree:)

  • *Cinderella* did not get “universal acclaim” from me, and I’ve never seen or even heard of a film called *Girlhouse.*

  • thomskis

    District 9 had no flaws.

  • thomskis

    I stuck with it. Tough watch, but still welled up at the end (I know).

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    There’s a bit of plot nonsense in the middle there, if memory serves, and some cartoonish villains for no good reason. But still a good effort all around.

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