In the near future, crime is patrolled by a mechanized police force. When one of the police droids is stolen and given new programming, Chappie as his kidnappers are labeled becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
A Broken Toy
Chappie has a number of problems, but being a lot of fun isn’t one of them. Before I dig into the issues plaguing the film it’s important to note that — should you choose to venture to your local theater to see this you’ll likely still enjoy yourself. Fans of Blomkamp’s previous projects especially will find something to like about his latest effort.
The action is still gritty, the special effects are his most flawless yet. Beautifully rendered and integrated CG characters look like they really belong in the scenes with their human counterparts. You might be able to argue that the mech in the last half of the film is less convincing at times, but the overall cool factor will pull you from your nitpicking long enough that it won’t matter. If the action and visuals are all you’re interested in, you’ll be sufficiently pleased with the results, but the more discerning viewer will find that Blomkamp still hasn’t overcome his weaknesses and myopic proclivities.
Black and White Should be Gray
Chappie is Blomkamp’s third feature film after Elysium and District 9 and in terms of overall quality, it falls somewhere between the two with District 9 being the strongest of the bunch. As with the two other films, Chappie attempts to spin its tale of class warfare while wrapping itself in a brilliant suit of technologically dazzling distractions. A setting he seems to come back to over and over again. It’s understandable that he might have this obsession with class having grown up in Apartheid era South Africa. Your humble writer also grew up in the region during the same era so, I’m quite aware of what he talks about albeit from the mirrored angle.
For the young readers among you who were born after Apartheid was abolished in the early 90s, in a nutshell it was South Africa’s equivalent to segregation in the US. Society was partitioned by race and the majority populace (blacks) were generally prohibited from becoming active participants in the political and cultural system. Voting and education rights were a contentious issue, for example. On the other hand, as occasionally occurred in the US; at the same time that segregation (and more so during the earlier US slavery era) didn’t like the blacks participating politically or drinking from the same drinking hole, blacks were being used and abused as a thankless workforce. Dehumanized and treated as if they were livestock. It’s with this foundational background of his that Blomkamp builds the allegory that is Chappie.
In Chappie, the robotic force substitutes for the blacks and the humans as a whole become the oppressors. The film appears to ask the question; “what is life?”. Our story takes place in a world where we’ve advanced robotics and A.I. enough that while they’re not quite completely autonomous, they’re doing a lot of what humans can do physically. The plot takes place in South Africa and the country has contracted a foreign weapons company to deploy a test force of these robots into the field as supplements to police tactical units (SWAT). They act as fearless fodder for the criminals and dive headlong into otherwise deadly situations to take out the increasingly more violent lawbreakers. It’s a recipe for some really cool and pulse pounding action sequences and reason alone to see this on the big screen.
The plot also sets up our human characters. You have the criminal stars played by husband and wife musicians (and comedians apparently) Yolandi and Ninja Visser of band Die Antwoord; you have the two rival engineers played by Dev Patel who is behind the winning robotic SWAT mates and Hugh Jackman who’s own project has lost out on the recent contract due to expense and a general overkill in the design department. Sigourney Weaver appears in a thankless role as the weapons company figurehead.
One And A Half Dee
Now for the troubles. All the characters are to be plain, cardboard cutouts. Jackman’s a nutcase. His singular motivation seems to be a love for death and destruction and feelings of pure jealousy towards the fact that his overblown ideas weren’t chosen over Patel’s clearly more reasoned designs. There are moments when you can see what MAYBE Blomkamp was trying to do which was to distinguish Jackman as the pro-human party — a man who believes that robots should be tools and not our equals. The tech he’s built has no mind/reasoning AI of its own; it requires a human to control it at all. This philosophy is never explored however and as a result plays out as just a throwaway detail.
Patel’s engineer is the most well rounded of the lot, but is nevertheless limited in his mental scope. He’s supposed to be the adult in the room morally, but his obsession with building the ultimate A.I. causes him to place the entire world, not just himself, in mortal danger. When confronted with what he’s created though, he chooses to blame everyone but himself. In the end, the sentient Chappie comes out on top morally which is ludicrous on its face, but then again you weren’t going into this film expecting scientific accuracy. If so, look elsewhere.
The other prominant humans, played by Die Antwoord, exist largely as one giant McGuffin — serving as the mechanism to shove the plot forwards. Ninja plays the unreasonably violent, abusive, and shifty dad to Chappie while Yolandi is the wide eyed and nurturing maternal figure for this quick learning mechanical creation. This duo aren’t particularly talented singers (or comedians) and it looks like they now have the honor of adding mediocre acting talent to their list of accomplishments. They play a large part in raising the robot, but nevertheless manage to fail in convincing it that bad is good. It’s baffling really when you see the things they put Chappie through. Again, it largely comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what separates machines from humans.
Even forgiving this misstep in logic, Chappie’s behavior completely undermines some of the core foundation of the story; namely that Patel’s engineer can actually come up with a program this sophisticated without a matching understanding of how to troubleshoot its basics. There’s a reason we haven’t licked artificial intelligence folks. We have less than a clue how intelligence itself works. True intelligence is not merely data crunching. Absorbing the internet won’t make you smarter, it’ll just give you more information. It won’t teach you how to reason right from wrong.
There was a great opportunity here to explore the intricacies of human behavior. That question of “What Is Life?” gets hinted at, but never gets even close to being answered. Maybe the answer is simply that life is magic and defies explanation. If so, I struggle to understand the point of asking the question at all.
Chappie attempts to play at being profound, but its uni-dimensional characterizations and ill-conceived technology concepts translate to a film with beautiful and fun visuals and little else. You’ll probably enjoy the moment, but it’ll pass into memory soon after.