Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Brandon Auret
MPAA Rating: (for violence, language and brief nudity)
Running Time: 2:00
Release Date: 3/6/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 5, 2015
With three features under his belt, it's probably fair to say director Neill Blomkamp excels in the setup. In Chappie, Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell imagine a Johannesburg of 2016 where crime has become so out of control that the human police force must be supplemented by a collection of nimble, blue robots called "Scouts." The crime rate plummets quickly, and within a year of the robot police program's inception, 20 of the city's major gangs have been eradicated.
This isn't the intriguing part, but it must be noted that Blomkamp visualizes the Johannesburg of the near future in such a way that it feels legitimate in its gritty decay, even as the technology at the story's core seems like something that comes from a much more distant future and the gang members seem to have been taken from some dystopian vision of the future in a movie from the 1980s (The haircuts and fashion certainly give us that impression). There are no legal or ethical arguments against the influx of reflexive robots created by a private corporation roaming the streets. They get the work done, and that's apparently enough for the population.
It's just background for the story of one of those robots. Its serial number is 0022. It has bad luck, having been run over by a vehicle when we first meet it and receiving a direct hit from a rocket during a raid on one of the city's gangs.
Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the man responsible for creating the Scouts, wants to save this robot for an experiment in artificial intelligence. He believes he has found the coding that will enable a computer program to become sentient—to learn, feel, and express itself in a way that is distinctly human. Three survivors of the gang capture Deon, believing he holds the key to deactivating all the robot cops.
This isn't the intriguing part, either, but Blomkamp and Tatchell are starting to get there. That there is a process of "getting there" is a little distracting. The movie throws a lot at us in its first act, and a lot of it is ultimately overshadowed by the movie's eventual focus or just downright strange on a plot level (Take, for example, how Deon becomes a hostage who is free to come and go as he pleases).
The turning point is when Deon uploads his artificial intelligence program into the robot. He informs the gang members that it's going to take some time for the robot to learn—that it will first seem to have the brainpower of a super-intelligent human baby. When Chappie (motion-performed and voiced by Sharlto Copley)—as its "mommy" (Yo-Landi Visser) dubs the robot—boots into existence, it huddles in a defensive pose and scurries into hiding. The rest of the movie is about how Chappie grows from the pure innocence of his nature into an entity that is trying to figure out who it is by way of the nurturing of his loving mommy, his corrupting "daddy" (Ninja), and his rule-bestowing "maker."
The movie is an allegory, a fairy tale, and a study of an entity's psychological development. For a while, it works, at least theoretically, because Chappie—the movie's aforementioned intriguing part—is a fascinating blank slate of a character.
We see it develop—become programmed, if you will—by the people who make up its foster family. The robot learns the concept of a soul from his mommy (Conveniently, consciousness or the soul turns out to fit as a data file on a flash drive). It gets his strutting physicality and speech patterns from his uncle Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). It is deceived into a life of crime by his daddy, who teaches his adopted child that knives and throwing stars are just tools to put people to "sleep." Chappie comes to question the logic of and hate the maker who gave it life, only so that it would eventually die. It's probably inevitable that a robot that learns to wear gold chains on its second day of life will suffer an existential crisis on its third.
All of this is at odds with the movie's tendency to simplify matters of character and plot. We sense that tendency in the build-up to Chappie's introduction, but subplots involving corporate intrusion (Sigourney Weaver plays the company head who doesn't see the point of a weapons manufacturer developing a conscious robot that could have a conscience) and an obvious villain bring the movie's attention to ideas to a grinding halt. The villain is Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a fellow robot designer who is jealous of Deon's success. He's building and trying to sell a monster of a robot called the "Moose," and in case there's any doubt, yes, the whole thing is building to a confrontation with the metallic beast.
Just when the movie seems to be hitting its stride, Blomkamp and Tatchell fall back on the reliable and the expected. This is a movie that dares to raise the big ideas, only to cower into a comfortable corner whenever the time comes to actually address those concepts. Chappie leaves us wanting much more.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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