There’s a scene at the beginning of Chappie where South Africa’s fleet of robotic police man chase a group of silly looking gangstas through the freeways of Johannesburg, culminating in a brutally violent gunfight that highlights the viciousness of crime in a world requiring robot cops. In that moment, you think to yourself, didn’t they already remake RoboCop? Sadly, the comparisons between Neill Blomkamp‘s 2015 film, and Paul Verhoeven‘s 1987 classic don’t end there as Chappie tackles corporate corruption, greed, violence, and the eternal question of what makes a man a man, is the soul a quality of the organic, or is it something even a machine can obtain?
Laying aside obvious comparisons to RoboCop, which would have been fine if that were the only pre-occupation that Blomkamp had, there’s another robot movie that Chappie seems to want to emulate, Short Circuit. You maybe too young to remember, but in 1986 there was a movie called Short Circuit, which was about a military robot who develops human-like qualities after being struck by lightning. Chappie, the robotic main character created by Sharlto Copley, is basically the millennial version of Johnny 5, the main character from Short Circuit.
If you want to make a funny robot film, that’s fine, but Chappie is a funny robot film surrounded by RoboCop and Judge Dredd with a bit of Falling Down mixed in for added flavor. There’s a lot going on, from the bigger questions of the ethics of artificial intelligence, to the plot points about the rivalry between Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) and Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) to see whose robot design can function best as Johannesburg’s artificial police, but by all means, let’s stop in the middle of all that to teach a robot how to be “gangsta.” The definition of “gangsta” here being the same one that Jamie Kennedy used when he created B-Rad in Malibu’s Most Wanted.
Maybe this is a cultural thing. Blomkamp recruited South African music stars Ninja and Yolandi Visser to play alternate dimension versions of themselves (I guess) who become Chappie’s gangland “parents.” Originally they kidnap Deon to make him create a way to shut down the robot army he invented, thus enabling their crime spree, but they instead discover Deon’s plan to use a decommissioned robot to carry on an unauthorized experiment in artificial intelligence. Chappie is the result, and his development resembles that of a child, only in this instance he’s left under the direction of “parents” who are delusional, violent, and highly immoral. It’s a Maury Povich episode waiting to happen.
I suppose Blomkamp was trying to subvert expectations. Usually, the well-meaning scientist takes the nascent artificial life and teaches them about all the good things in life and girds them against the bad, but in Chappie it’s the opposite. And that’s how we get the scene where Chappie learns to be a gangsta, because nothing says intimidating like seeing a robot blinged out and walking with what’s supposed to be a swagger, but really looks like just a robot with a limp.
But why would Deon leave one of the most important breakthroughs in human history with a bunch of psychos? That’s one of many unanswered questions that Chappie leaves scattered about the set as it marches from one plot point to the other. Why does Deon’s boss played by Sigourney Weaver immediately dismiss her top inventor when he comes to her saying he can create A.I.? How is Jackman’s Vincent allowed such access when he’s clearly disturbed? Why does Ninja even bother when he clearly has no patience or understanding of what Chappie is?
On the plus side Copley works overtime to fill Chappie with a compelling humanity, carefully balancing the idea that Chappie’s a child while still understanding that he’s a robot with a pre-programmed nature and limitations. Copley makes Chappie charming and relatable, surprisingly more relatable than almost all of the human characters in the film. There’s a lot of humor in the way Chappie adapts to the world, and a lot of sadness in how he struggles to make his way in it to. There’s a scene where Chappie is left by Ninja to fend for himself surrounded by other gangbangers, and because he’s a police robot, they basically scourge him. Here, Copley fills Chappie with so much panic and fear that he sells the raw emotion of the scene, and almost brings you to tears.
If the movie has been filled with more of that, it would have been so much better. Instead though, the plot chugs along with Ninja’s stupid plan to use Chappie to steal the money he needs to pay off another gangster, and with Vincent’s stupider plan to use a chip to shut down all of Chappies “brothers” to create a crisis to let his “Moose” robot a shot a serving and protecting. Forget the fact that “Moose” looks like the next gen version of RoboCop’s ED-209, but how does a supposedly smart man like Vincent expect to get away with sabotaging his own company? Don’t the computers at big corporations have internal surveillance for that very reason? Passwords and such.
If Vincent’s motivation, and Deon’s scattered obsessions don’t make a lot of sense, it’s because Chappie never stops to explain anything, or build-up to any of the actions it shows. At least the crime plot involving Ninja et al is consistently crazy, and there is something interesting and genuine in the way the Chappie holds on to Deon’s warning about not doing the heist with Ninja, and in Ninja’s attempts to re-try and bend logic to convince Chappie that it’s okay to do the heist. It’s honestly the closest that the film gets to the existential implications of the creation of artificial intelligence, which is has so many possibilities in a story like this. But Chappie is not a movie concerned with themes or messages, unlike Blomkamp’s previous two films District 9 and Elysium.
In making Chappie it seemed as though Blomkamp was reaching back to District 9 while trying to run from the ambitious misstep of Elysium. In Chappie, he goes back to South Africa, in the [sorta] present, and (briefly) uses the mix of drama and mockumentary to tell the film’s story. One could argue even that Chappie and District 9 have the same visual pallet, as if they take place in the same universe, but District 9 had a soft touch, and it also felt like it was trying to say something. What Chappie is saying, I’m not sure. I assume, at the end, the message is that trusting our safety to robots in problematic, but the fate of our heroes sort of belies that as the credits role. Either way, it’s a very bombastic film.
Is Chappie a complete failure? No, the production design, the visual effects, the action scenes, and, as I said, the performance of Copley as Chappie, are all great. Somewhere, in the midst of what’s on screen, is the seed for an interesting movie, a true millennial version of RoboCop. (Hey, even the remake had some good ideas in it.) On the one hand Chappie is actually fairly entertaining, and Blomkamp demonstrates that, at the very least, he’s a master of craft. But on the other hand, it’s unlikely that Chappie will go down as an inheritor to the works of Asimov and other popular visions of humanity’s future robotic interactions. Maybe that’s okay, or maybe we just expect better of the man that gave us District 9.