Chappie Review

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo


Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with his directorial debut District 9, a gritty sci-fi film set in his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa. At the time, he proved himself as a fresh new voice in Hollywood and a special effects guru capable of showing up the big studio blockbusters with a fraction of the budget. Now, five years later, his career is already in danger of stagnating. How did it come to this?

Blomkamp’s second film Elysium lost a lot of the goodwill that he had built up with District 9, mostly because the story just didn’t hold water. Working with a much bigger budget and an A-list star, Blomkamp focused all of his attention on spectacle and forgot to put any substance behind the action. Now he has returned to his roots with a more modest budget and another story inspired by one of his short films. Unfortunately, in the end, Chappie is an even bigger misfire for Blomkamp, one that is so inherently flawed that it simply cannot recover.

The story once again takes place in South Africa, imagining a near future where robots are enlisted to help reduce the crime rate. When one of the engineers decides to perform some rogue modifications on a damaged robot, he gives birth to a self-aware machine with the ability to learn like a human. His experiment goes awry when a group of desperate local gangsters stumble upon the robot and opt to use him for their own purposes, training him instead to become “Robot Gangster Number One.”

The movie opens with talking head interviews and news reports similar to District 9, establishing the situation and immediately lending credibility to this futuristic scenario. For a while, there appears to be plenty of potential in the premise, despite its obvious similarities to both Robocop and Short Circuit. After some initial hints at satire and social commentary, however, the movie quite literally runs out of juice, leading to a cliched and confusing conclusion that ultimately goes nowhere.

Chappie is definitely more of a comedy than Blomkamp’s previous films, which is one of the things that arguably saves it from a complete systems failure. Much of the comedy comes from the fun of seeing a childlike A.I. interact with hardened criminals and while this is somewhat obvious it does lead to some surreal and memorable moments, including a montage of a blinged out robot carjacking people at gunpoint. At times it feels like an R-rated Short Circuit (or, more appropriately, Short Circuit 2), but the gangsters themselves also have a childlike nature that is endearing. South African rappers Die Antwoord prove to be unique and interesting characters on screen even if their acting chops aren’t quite there.


The movie is also accompanied by a propulsive electronic score and soundtrack that predictably includes plenty of songs by Die Antwoord. While the music definitely gives the movie a unique flavour, it also by the end feels a little too much like a shameless advertisement for the band. The score was composed by Hans Zimmer, which is ironic considering that the score for Elysium sounded a lot more in line with Zimmer’s previous work than this does.

Chappie himself is at least an impressive achievement on a technical and emotional level. I was surprised by how quickly you are able to care for him, although I think this is partially an indication of just how easy it is for humans to empathize with a creature that is completely innocent. The movie does cheat a bit by having Chappie talk like a child (he is voiced by Blomkamp’s frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley), and also by having him suffer some unfair physical abuse, but the early stages of Chappie learning the world around him are delightful and also give an appreciation for the complexity of real human learning. The film makes the idea of a sentient machine seem within reach, even though they simplify things a great deal.

After getting the audience behind Chappie, however, the movie proceeds to simply throw away all of that emotional investment. Much like Elysium, this movie rolls out a last minute deus ex machina that just automatically fixes all of their problems, and while that could have led to a whole new set of issues, they are not explored in any way whatsoever. Hugh Jackman’s mulleted one-note villain provides the requisite giant robot battle at the end, but it also leads to a somewhat problematic moral quandary that leaves Chappie seeming not so heroic. It’s possible that this was meant to be intentionally disturbing, but it’s not clear enough to have any real impact. The fate of Ninja and Yolandi is also somewhat questionable in my mind.

It’s a shame but it would appear that Neill Blomkamp is simply unable to deliver on the third act of his films. His talent for making short films is clear, but his ability to flesh out these ideas out into a feature-length stories is less proven. Perhaps Peter Jackson made the difference as a producer on District 9 or perhaps Blomkamp just didn’t give his latest scripts the time they needed to develop. Either way, there aren’t a lot of directors making edgy and thoughtful science-fiction these days, so let’s hope he can recalibrate and learn from his mistakes before he tackles a beloved franchise like the Alien series. — Sean

SCORE: 2.5 stars

  • Colin

    Love the new Blu star rating graphic

  • Wintle

    Or maybe District 9 was never very good to begin with.

  • Sean

    Even if you don’t like District 9, I think there is a noticeable difference in the quality of storytelling there.

  • Deven Science

    I’ll say for me, I recently rewatched District 9, and it definitely held up. Sharlto Copley is amazing, playing the roll of coward and hero perfectly. The sin greater than Blomkamp’s difficulty in following up on the promise of District 9 is Copley’s difficulty in following up the promise of District 9.

  • BatemanBegins

    That extra star feels wrong.

  • jsloggz

    I was very close to going to see this at some point this weekend, thinking now I’ll just stay home. This years film season is off to a slow start so far, but I guess that’s always the case.

  • Bandit Manatee

    Even though this is getting lukewarm reaction I am still pretty excited to see it. I think Blomkamp’s movies are very watchable with great action and imagery. A blinged out gangsta robot sounds awesome to me.

  • ECONOMYpolitica

    It was definitely meant to be disturbing. Robot soldiers fighting human crime is very disturbing but accepted as a perfectly logical idea. Bloomkamp takes the concept to a great climax shocking these sick psycho cubicle killers into reality. The third act was incredible. I really liked this movie and the way it examined human existence, God and morality through the lens of Chappie. Awesome action scenes, funny comedy. This was a good movie. Thumbs up.

  • Reed Farrington

    After just watching Chappie, I thought you would like this movie as much as District 9, Sean. You’re starting to be as illogical, or should I say as inscrutable, as Jay.

  • Sean

    What can I say, people like a little mystery.

  • Sean

    If it’s meant to be disturbing, he really could have amped up the violence to make a point. Instead he doesn’t commit.

  • ECONOMYpolitica

    He committed. That thread ran its course and then we got the huge revelation that Chappie can forgive that man for killing his mother. It shows how far he came in such little time. It was stunning. I can’t remember another movie like this.

  • Might not bother with watching this in the cinema now.
    Great review!

  • ECONOMYpolitica

    It’s well worth seeing at the tester. Make up your own mind.

  • Sure! It’s just that I thought District 9 was just OK, Elysium was kind of bad, so I wasn’t that interested from the start and this review is not helping. Then I would rather spend the $15 (normal ticket price in Sweden) on something I’m interested in.

  • ECONOMYpolitica

    It was really well-made movie with an awesome Hans Zimmer score. You will probably be interested if you liked Short Circuit and Robocop. It takes those influences up a notch and has a really interesting way of telling the story that I think really is pretty epic. Don’t see many awesome sic-fi movies like this anymore. The sound was great. Good one to see at the theater if you’re into sound.

  • Jamie Tainton

    I have to disagree- I really enjoyed this film and think its a shame if this movie gets a bad rep. Was kinda skeptical because of all the prior hype, (and the name of the film really bugged me for some reason), but after watching it in a packed theater last night I really enjoyed the design, and pace of the film. Much better than the recent Jupiter Rising! Not to be taken too seriously, just a fun sci fi story
    4 outa 5

  • Cool! I do love Robocop so maybe I’ll reconsider again. Thanks for giving some counterarguments! :)

  • frankw35

    Agree completely–this thing was watchable, but still an illogical, near train-wreck and mishmash of tones. Almost no characters in this movie do anything because it makes any sense, but simply because it propels the plot along.

  • ChrisJPN

    At this point I’d say Copley is one of the worst major actors in the world. Just unbearable in Elysium (although Jodie Foster was even worse) and Old Boy. I won’t see Chappie primarily because he’s in it.

  • Mrespony

    I guess it’s a sign that things aren’t going well with Blomkamp’s career when your 3rd film has a “from the makers of…” his 1st film. Still, the Alien franchise holds promise. Action and gritty sci-fi realism are his strong suits, Alien doesn’t leave much room for moralizing, hope it works out because it seems like a good marriage.