Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Yolandi Visser, Ninja, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
There’s a certain irony in a film about a robot who learns how to be human being populated with characters with no recognizable human motivations, but that’s only one of the major problems plaguing Chappie, the third feature from South African Neil Blomkamp.
In the very, very near future (2016), South Africa’s urban unrest is being combatted by Scouts, humanoid police robots manufactured by an outfit called Tetravaal. Their effectiveness has earned plenty of praise for their inventor, Deon (Dev Patel), along with jealousy from his co-worker, Vincent (Hugh Jackman, and we’ll get to him later) whose rival project, a big ol’ ED-209 lookin’ thing, has had its funding slashed. Being the genius-level cognitive scientist so commonly found in this sort of thing, Deon really wants to work on artificial intelligence, but his superior, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) fails to see the value in the work.
Deon gets to have an impromptu field test, though, thanks to the blundering machinations of a couple of street thugs (Yolandi Visser and Ninja of rap group Die Antwoord, pretty much playing themselves in a bit of confusing metatextuality) and his experimental artificial consciousness winds up in a damaged Scout body that’s been earmarked for scrap. Chappie, as Yolandi dubs the droid, might have a voracious appetite for learning, but as a newborn intelligence he is utterly childlike, with no experience of the world. While Deon wants to help his creation grow and Yolandi’s heretofore untapped nurturing instincts see her act with kindness towards Chappie, Ninja wants to use him in a robbery to pay off the psychotic gangster, Hippo (Brandon Auret).
As a film, Chappieis one of the most prominent examples of “nice ideas, piss poor execution” in recent memory, jockeying for the top slot with another cod-awful stab at transhumanism, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence. Blomkamp is one of the few filmmakers out there consistently trying to make thoughtful, original science fiction cinema, and he’s clearly got a deep love for and knowledge of the genre, so it’s especially frustrating to see him fumble the ball as badly as he does here, couching his themes in some truly dire writing.
I’d really love to get a look at the screenplay for this one, which Blomkamp authored with his wife and creative partner, Terri Tatchell, because if it resembles what wound up on screen, it’s a miracle it ever got greenlit. Chappie feels like they worked off the original treatment, with characters hastily sketched and placeholder dialogue that was never polished into something actual people might say. It’s actually kind of incredible. While Yolandi and Ninja are understandable in context – they’re playing drug-addled, low level thugs who can barely keep their shit together on a day to day basis – there’s no excuse for anyone else.
Poor Hugh Jackman gets the worst of it as the mulleted, religious, aggressive-to-the-point-of-actual psychosis villain of the piece. His character is just a jumble of contradictory motivations, tics and traits. At one point he jams a gun into Deon’s face in the middle of a crowded office, only to laugh it off as a practical joke – and everyone believes him. Nobody here behaves in a believable, consistent manner.
So what does work? Chappie the character, for one thing, thanks to a great performance by Sharlto Copley, who provides the voice and mocap model, couple with some top notch effects work. There’s never a moment where Chappie doesn’t feel like a real, physical, integrated part of the world depicted, even as his behaviour sets him irrevocably apart from the grim milieu he moves through. Chappie’s very literal innocence is played for both pathos and laughs to equal effect, and there are sequences – such as when Ninja abandons him in a ghetto to toughen him up – that are deeply affecting.
Blomkamp’s visual aesthetic remains as arresting as ever, taking his cues from cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic texts and filtering them through his experience of urban South Africa to produce something singular. It’s all in the little details, from the logos stenciled on Chappie’s chassis, to Ninja’s bright yellow assault rifle, to the graffiti decorating the little gang’s slum hideout. I like that Blomkamp enjoys putting his home culture up on the screen, rather than bowing to a homogenised, Americanised vision of the future – it’s something cultural cringe-prone Australian filmmakers could learn from.
And yeah, although the film never delves too deeply, it gets marks for playing around with some interesting SF concepts: the nature of consciousness and personhood, the privatization of public service, the automation of conflict (something Chappieseems to come down in favour of – after all, it’s Vincent, creator of the manned robot police project, that is the villain of the piece). In many ways, it’s a better Robocop remake than the Robocop remake, although that’s faint praise.
In the end, Chappieis a bad film, but you can see the shape of the good film it could have been so easily. If you’re in a forgiving mood, you could just about give it a passing grade. I suspect that each viewer’s enjoyment is going to hinge on how they react to the individual elements it contains, rather than the work as a whole. Genre fans who know how to calibrate their expectations appropriately should get a kick or two out of it – everyone else is on their own.