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Like Short Circuit For Knuckleheads: Chappie, Reviewed

1. District 9, the 2009 full-length debut from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, gave us an entirely new way of thinking about science-fiction movies. I wasn't as crazy about it as most other critics, but you couldn't deny that it was trying something different, creating an alternate universe and plopping it right on top of ours, resulting in something messy, muddy, dingy, and surprisingly raw. He made his universe as mundane and confused as the one we live in: Everything's beige and dirty and drab and in need of a good scrub. This grounded his aliens-as-apartheid-victims story, made us believe it despite ourselves, and got our eyes popping out of our skulls when the oh, shit blow-stuff-up moments came. It was scaled-down spectacle, documentary-style fantasticism. It was a neat trick.

2. It's a gimmick, though, and one that Blomkamp has run into the dirt with Chappie, his third movie, and a total groaner that I suspect he'll be trying to live down for a long, long time. The problem is that for all his visual aptitude, he's ... well, it's Friday, and it's been a hard week, so let's just be kind and call him not the most intellectual writer and director. His playground here is the same grubby Johannesburg of District 9, but now he's unable to populate it with anything other than the most cliched, grotesque gaggle of dipshits. And of all the directors to try to do something with the concept of artificial intelligence! Chappie's idea of AI is to make robots into cute little babies, silly innocents who talk like children and keep calling for Mommy and Daddy. I don't know exactly what will happen in the real world when robots eventually grow sentient and enslave us all, but I'm fairly certain it won't involve them shrieking, "Chappie wants to go home! Chappie no like this!" It's like if Johnny Number Five got hit in the head with something heavy.


3. I'm pretty sure Blomkamp, when he conceived of this project, was imagining some sort of homage to trashy '80s action movies—specifically RoboCop, but generally anything that involves soulless corporate entities and a ragtag group of neer-do-wells working out of some burned-out old warehouse. Our plot: In the next decade, Johannesburg is overrun by crime, and thus enlists a robotics company called Tetravaal to construct an army of robot police to clean up the streets. This works—it works so well that it's a little bit of a surprise that there are any criminals left at all—but it also leads to an inter-company battle between the "nerd" who designed the program (Dev Patel) and the former soldier (Hugh Jackman, dressed like Steve Irwin for some reason) who wants his own robot police force. (Blomkamp has their battles take place a few cubicles over from each other, which is a curious decision; it's odd to see a supervillain with a stapler.) The nerd, meanwhile, has invented an A.I. chip in his spare time—in a montage that features Patel unconvincingly tweaking out on Red Bull—and implants it in a broken-down robot-cop model. Hence, Chappie, the baby robot, who ends up being "raised" by three low-level criminals, two of whom are members of South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord, playing exaggerated (I hope) versions of themselves.

4. So! It is one thing to decide that Chappie—who is capable of downloading the entire internet into his brain in a matter of seconds (which, hey, buddy, if you're reading this: Get out of this movie! Run, Chappie!), but still believes his hoodlum parents when they tell him that when you stab people, it just makes them go to sleep—has the emotional precociousness of a toddler. ("Chappie scared! Chappie no want to do heist!" Somebody download this kid a personal pronoun.) It is quite another to have a robot put on "HUSTLER" gold necklaces and fake grills while turning his gun sideways and saying things like, "Chappie gonna kill y'all motherfuckas." As curious as I might be about what a robot Riff Raff might look like, as a dramatic device, turning your film's character into a baby robot who walks all sideways and keeps yelping, in a sing-song child's voice, that he is "gangsta" ... well, it's maybe a bit questionable? Yeah, let's just go with questionable.

Blomkamp doesn't even get his robotics right. When Chappie gets angry, the pixels that make up his eyeballs—don't ask!—actually go slanted and shaky, like his eyebrows are furrowing, which would be too cartoonish for children's television. In trying to make a hip, self-aware, but still "real"A.I. robot, Blomkamp has made an avatar of ridiculousness. I bet Chappie turns into a Twitter-ridiculed meme. Chappie scared!

5. This all ends up with the usual explosive Blomkamp finale, but this time it feels rote and preordained: There's none of the kinetic unpredictability of District 9 or even 2013's Elysium, which was even dumber than this movie, but at least had some inventive carnage. (I enjoyed when the one guy's face blew off and was somehow reconstructed.) Now, you just get some robots shooting at people (and those people shooting back) while Chappie uses a series of PlayStation 4s (lotta Sony products in this film, which is unsurprising, given that they distributed it) to download "Consciousness.DAT" to a server. "Chappie can upload Mommy!" Sure you can, bud. Sure you can. Each of Blomkamp's movies has gotten progressively worse—and now he's doing the next Aliens film. That franchise has suffered enough, and so have we: This film is dumber than a box of granite. Bad Chappie! Bad!


Grade: D+.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.


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