1. Life & Culture

Review: 'Chappie' a robot tale with too many used parts

Chappie, voiced by Sharlto Copley in a scene from the action-adventure film Chappie. [Sony Pictures]
Chappie, voiced by Sharlto Copley in a scene from the action-adventure film Chappie. [Sony Pictures]
Published Mar. 5, 2015

Another M. Night Shyamalan is the last thing we need, and the first thing coming to mind as Neill Blomkamp's career continues with Chappie. It doesn't take a sixth sense to detect a similar flameout in progress.

Blomkamp, like Shyamalan, made an Oscar impression right off the bat, with 2009's District 9, a rare sci-fi best picture nominee. Hollywood dumped money in the new kid's lap and he returned Elysium, a forgettable outer space health care fantasy.

Now there's Chappie, a strange mix of Short Circuit, RoboCop (the uncool remake) and Jar-Jar Binks, with a little rage-rap edge that is surprisingly the most entertaining aspect of the movie.

Blomkamp cast Cape Town rappers Die Antwoord as themselves, the crime-punk, sort-of foster parents to a infantile robot they're teaching to steal. He's Ninja, she's Yo-Landi Vissar. Neither should quit their night jobs but they're amusing, in a ballistic albino/tatted-up/in need of subtitles sort of way.

They call their "child" Chappie, but his real name is No. 22. He's part of Johannesburg's robot police presence, invented by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). After No. 22 is severely damaged in a gunfight, Deon saves the remains from demolition to test a new program, making the robot sentient.

Ninja and Yo-Landi kidnap Deon and 22, whose rebooting has regressed him to a toddler's knowledge and emotions. Blomkamp's movie becomes a spacey riddle of artificially intelligent nature vs. nurture, with Chappie picking up street slang and firearm protocols from Ninja and Yo-Landi, and moral lessons from Deon, while the villain (an okay Hugh Jackman) wants its make and model obsolete.

The movie's glaring problem is the design and execution of Chappie, whose look is unremarkable except for a pair of polymer rabbit ears ready for meme posterity. The primary tool for any actor — the eyes — are unexpressive LED dots. There are metal bars for the browline and jaw, hinged like a passenger restraint on a carnival ride.

Chappie is played by Sharlto Copley, who shined in District 9 before overplaying his hand in Elysium. Unlike the motion capture magic of Andy Serkis in the Planet of the Apes series, Copley's movements on the set are "painted over" with CGI. The effect is motion too fluid for such a clunky machine.

It is difficult to hear Copley's line readings, his South African accent techno-filtered, and not think unfondly of Jar-Jar Binks. Same frantic jabbering when excited, in a patois that similarly can be considered wrong. Chappie sounds like a cartoon sidekick who stumbled onto an R-rated set and wants to whine about it.

It's still too early to write off Blomkamp; Shyamalan made three decent films before the bottom fell out. Blomkamp's next project is a make-or-breaker: reviving the Alien franchise with Sigourney Weaver. And if he's smart, Ninja and Yo-Landi as aliens.

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Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.