Writer/director Neill Blomkamp is only three features into what promises to be a long career, but he’s already developed some very clear patterns and themes. Basically, he pairs incredible CGI visuals with subtlety-free narratives centered on a main character who’s altered/enhanced in some life-altering way. District 9 tackled apartheid, Elysium blew the lid off wealth disparity and now his latest film explores yet another social injustice – the promise and danger of artificial intelligence. Wait, what?
Chappie opens with newscasters and talk show hosts hinting at a brave new world of A.I. entities – we know it’s a few years into the future because Anderson Cooper’s hair is grey – before we move a few months back to the crime-ridden city of Johannesburg. The police have begun rolling out humanoid-like, robotic enforcers called Scouts, and they quickly prove to be quite a success. They’re the brainchild of a young engineer named Deon (Dev Patel) but the property of his employer, and when he expresses his desire to test a new A.I. program on a damaged unit the CEO (Sigourney Weaver) shuts him down.
Deon persists and steals a Scout, but he and his unit fall into the hands of a trio of misfit gangsters (including Ninja and Yolandi, members of South African rap group Die Antwoord who essentially play themselves here?) who want the robot’s help in committing a big heist. Gifted with consciousness, the newly nicknamed Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley) begins learning from those around him – Deon teaches him right from wrong and how to paint, Ninja teaches him how to throw shurikens and act gangsta, Yolandi reads him a storybook – but the experiment is cut short by threats from other thugs and Deon’s jealous co-worker, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who’s “as cross as a frog in a sock” at Deon’s success and godless tinkering.
The questionable ethics of creating human-like A.I. are the backbone of the story alongside the question of what it means to be human, but sadly the very things Chappie wants to be about – intelligence and humanity – are absent from the film itself.
The script, co-written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, is clear in its destination, but it repeatedly stumbles and fumbles along the way. Deon’s A.I. program – life itself in coded form – is presented as a quick software upload, and a big stink is made of his protestation that Chappie’s new consciousness can’t be moved to a stronger robotic body because he doesn’t know where it is. I’m no engineer, but I’m thinking it’s in Chappie’s CPU and memory banks, you know, where he uploaded the firmware update earlier. And that intro hinting at a world aware of Chappie’s exploits and in awe of what comes next? Never revisited.
We’re also told that Chappie is basically a newborn in need of education. He doesn’t know English yet, so the characters go about teaching him what things are. “That’s a watch,” they say, to which he repeats “watch,” but when did he learn what “that’s” and “a” mean? He mimics dialogue as if that automatically infers context and meaning, but while none of it makes sense it’s clear that the goal of these scenes is purely comedic. Chappie is turned from a skittish machine into a metallic thug, albeit one with a heart of tin, and it’s all for laughs. Until people start dying anyway, at which point it’s only played partially for laughs. The humor and Chappie’s behaviors in particular seem aimed at children (or simpletons), but the constant F-bombs, occasional graphic violence and intended themes point in a competing direction.
The film wants viewers to fall in love with Chappie, to see him as human as the others or at least as a hybrid of man and machine, but he never even reaches the level of endearing. He’s more harmless than obnoxious, but calling him the result of a sloppy threesome between Dobby, Poochie and an Erector Set wouldn’t be far off. His outbursts about humanity’s faults are meant to be poignant, but they arrive with no emotional support and instead hang limply in the air.
Part of the problem is that Deon is pushed too frequently to the sidelines leaving us and Chappie with Ninja and Yolandi’s crew. There’s no one here for viewers to care about or grow attached to because everyone’s either a bad guy or a moron (or both). I can’t speak to Die Antwoord’s music, but two hours is entirely too long to spend with these personalities.
Oddly, it’s Vincent who ends up being the most empathetic character here. Sure he’s generic in many ways, has a comical attachment to his religious faith and feels compelled to read aloud every single prompt on his computer screen, but he also just wants a chance to demo his low-rent Ed-209 knock-off. Jackman has fun with the role, fun that may or may not include khaki shorts and a minor mullet, and you believe that Vincent’s just a guy trying make it onto the Employee of the Month plaque.
For all that though Blomkamp still excels at visuals, action and pacing. Chappie looks great and is never dull. The Scouts are a combination of CGI and motion capture, and they look absolutely fantastic in action and interaction with the humans. The world they’re occupying is the same dusty, gritty landscape of the director’s previous two films, but they feel just as real in it as anything else. It’s far from action-packed, but there are some solid shoot-outs that show Blomkamp’s eye in great form.
Chappie is not a good movie, and it arguably continues Blomkamp’s descent since District 9, but there’s nothing here to argue against his return to the director’s chair. Just, maybe, he should be working from someone else’s script while sitting there.
The Upside: Robot CGI is spectacular; some effective action sequences
The Downside: Characters more annoying than empathetic or likable; overly simplistic script; concerned with what it means to be human but lacks humanity; concerned with the power of artificial intelligence but lacks real intelligence; tonal misfire between broad comedy and drama
On the Side: It apparently only takes a dozen PS4 consoles to power a consciousness transfer. Well played Sony-produced film, well played.