Chappie has more heart than brains
Chappie is the sort of science fiction film that is able to both exhilarate and frustrate viewers — sometimes doing both at the same time.
This third feature from District 9 and Elysium director Neill Blomkamp is, like both films before it, concept-heavy from the get go, with Blomkamp exploring the nature of artificial intelligence and, ultimately, consciousness.
In the very near future, a Johannesburg, South Africa-based weapons and robotics corporation has successfully introduced an efficient and effective robotic police force to keep crime under control.
Brilliant programmer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has enjoyed the attention his robotic creations have brought about within the company, but his real passion is the development of a truly sentient artificial intelligence. Eventually he does exactly that, only to have company head Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) shoot down his idea of implementing it.
He steals a broken police droid before it can be recycled, but is hijacked by a trio of desperate street gangster types before he can upload the AI into it. He makes a deal with them — they can use the robot for whatever purpose they want, so long as he can upload the AI. Seeing the value of a police bot under their control, they let him do it — and "Chappie" comes to life.
Chappie (longtime Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley) begins as an essentially innocent, childlike creature, eventually finding himself (itself?) torn philosophically and ideologically in a tug-of-war between Deon and the street gangsters who want to turn him into a supercriminal.
Meanwhile, back at the home office and acting from underneath a ridiculous-looking almost-mullet haircut, Hugh Jackman plays a far more military minded rival of Deon named Vincent Moore. Moore has had his project — a neurologically controlled military robot — mothballed and is looking for a way to sabotage Deon's citywide bots so he can prove his overkill machines are the best tool for the job.
Without question, Blomkamp is one of the best visual effects directors in the business. He's also hardline committed to exploring the tough sorts of ideas and questions science fiction is, at its best, most suited to confronting, and finding poignant imagery and heartfelt sequences in which to do it. While he does fall back on action spectacle setpieces in his films, he has a knack for setting them up as obvious metaphors for the struggles of ideas going on in his films as a whole.
Where Blomkamp ran into trouble with Elysium — and where he also gets into trouble with Chappie — is that, while he has so much solid stuff on the table, his latest films have tended to be a mess when it comes to the general narrative.
Chappie is loaded with these sorts of issues. Deon works in a corporate compound that he and others are constantly entering, leaving, breaking into or breaking out of that seems to have no more security than a simple card reader on occasion. They frequently steal equipment or hijack the machinery inside remotely via computer and the only one who ever notices is, of course, Vincent Moore.
The little gangster clan who takes Chappie in is led by an ultra-aggressive, ultra-violent jerk with a constant scowl on his face for whom it's difficult to feel much, if any, sympathy for or empathy with, despite Blomkamp establishing tones seeming to think that we do. The character is also redeemed too late in the film for it to be truly effective.
The whole gangster thing as a whole becomes grating after a while, with Blomkamp seeming to have real difficulty finding balance between positioning them as slightly humorous ne'er-do-wells and violent, morally repugnant thugs.
Despite the city's coverage of police and police robots, our hapless gang of Chappie-helped nimrods manage to stage a series of car robberies that apparently don't attract the attention of anyone whatsoever, and are mostly played for laughs despite the obvious exploitation of the clueless, eager to please Chappie. It shouldn't just be a joke; it should also be uncomfortable in a moralistic sense. No such nuance exists in such sequences.
Given that we've seen these sorts of issues with a couple of Blomkamp's films now, it's entirely possible that he simply doesn't care about such things — that, details be damned, he's going for the raw emotional impact of his ideas at play and in conflict.
In many ways he seems like the flip side of a coin that has the technically proficient, detail rich, yet somehow emotionally sterile Christopher Nolan on the other side. Blomkamp uses spectacular imagery, memorable characters and big ideas to grab for the human heart but just can't put all the fiddly bits into coherence.