by Philip Price
Something rather odd occurred with “Chappie” as I attempted to take it in unphased by the haze of bad press it had swirling around it. For a good portion of the film, the parts before it essentially devolves into something of a mindless action film, I wasn't really gelling with what director Neill Blomkamp was going for. It's not that I didn't necessarily understand where he was coming from or what he was going for, but it just wasn't vibing with this particular audience member the way I feel he intended it to. As “Chappie” morphed into this one, big action sequence though I began to appreciate the way in which Blomkamp integrated all the elements he's been setting up even if some of those elements were rather frustrating. What I appreciated most though was the fact the film didn't go exactly where it could have and where I expected it to easily resort to, but in fact went a completely different direction and touched on a theme I didn't foresee the writer/director including in this script. As far as themes are concerned, Blomkamp is known for crafting large metaphors and for mirroring real-world issues with his science fiction stories, but as with “Elysium” my main problem here is that Blomkamp is touching on issues that are relevant now and not where those issues might push society in the future which is where “Chappie” is set and how science fiction typically works. Granted, it is only a few years, but after touching on South Africa's apartheid era in “District 9” and the satire of “Elysium” commenting on the current state of separation between classes I somewhat expected “Chappie” to push things to a different level for Blomkamp and frequent writing partner Terri Tatchell. The issue with all of the elements Blomkamp introduces and that he and Tatchell expertly integrate with one another is that instead of pushing things further, they just throw more plotlines with more themes at us to crowd our minds so that we might not focus on the fact the film doesn't have much to say about any single one of them, but more acknowledges that they exist and are rather interesting. In the end, what does this accomplish though? If no one line of thinking prevails, if no one idea is clarified, what is the point of the film? Herein lies the problem as I was entertained while watching “Chappie,” but took away my fair share of issues with it as well as not particularly liking large chunks of it.
The major downside to “Chappie” is that the initial idea is a rather bad one. We are first introduced to Deon (Dev Patel), a scientist at a company called Tetravaal run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), who has designed a line of police droids that are being utilized by the Johannesburg police force. While Deon might seemingly be on top of the world, his work never stops as he is now developing a program that might allow his droids to develop their own personalities, to become something akin to sentient beings or to acquire what is commonly referred to as artificial intelligence. While this type of software would no doubt be valuable one has to wonder if Deon has ever seen “Robocop” or any other cautionary science fiction tale that deals with the moral implications of implementing artificial intelligence into real world situations? Deon's wish to test his new A.I. software on one of the droids is shot down by Bradley, but as these things go we know any man with a drive and superior intelligence can't help himself and thus Deon grabs one of his robots that is scheduled to be demolished and takes it so that he might do a little experimenting. While all of this is happening we are also introduced to Ninja and Yo-Landi (who form the musical group Die Antwoord which you'll see plastered everywhere in the film) who get themselves into a bit of a pickle by owing a local gangster $20 million. How will they get this money? Rob a bank, of course! But what about the police bots? They can't rob anything with those pesky robots around! Well, let's kidnap the guy who invented them and have him switch them all off, they must have a remote! This is Ninja and Yo-Landi's plan and it doesn't get any more intelligent from there. Ever. They just so happen to kidnap Deon as he's leaving Tetravaal with his stolen droid and so they come to be in possession of the first robot with its own personality. As all of this is taking place Hugh Jackman is also running around with a mullet and a serious vendetta against young Deon as his Vincent Moore has his own robot he'd like to get into the field.
Going in, I was pretty excited to see what “Chappie” had to offer. Any time an original science fiction flick can get a budget of nearly $50 million there is something to be excited about, but this time around Blomkamp is over-compensating. Having recently spoke out about his frustration with the shortcomings of “Elysium” and his use of ideas and concepts over story it seems he was determined to give the people what they thought his previous feature was lacking. Again, like “Elysium,” the concept is strong here, but he has yet to find the balance within the ideas he intends to purport and the number of story strands and level of complexity necessary to convey them. It is a tricky line to walk, but at least we can see that the director is trying and if nothing else, “Chappie” is a step in the right direction. So, what exactly is Blomkamp trying to say with his latest, well it's a lot, but if I had to pick out one glaring theme it would be that of the nurturing of a child. From the moment Deon implants his A.I. software into the robot and it becomes Chappie it is like an infant learning at an accelerated rate. That he is born into this environment surrounded by the likes of Ninja, Yo-Landi and their third wheel, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), with only minimal input from his maker Chappie is brought up to act like the "illest gangsta on the block." The titular robot serves as the most interesting part of the film as we quickly buy into his artificial intelligence because of its inherent cuteness. He is a baby, an innocent in a disturbing world and we fear for him as much as we feel for him. In fact, the only appealing character here is the non-human one and props to Sharlto Copley for that. In the scenarios where Chappie is being brought up, taught to form his own opinions and developing a unique personality the most interesting dynamic is that of Deon's controlling, over-bearing parenting style versus the dead beat and down-right despicable traits that are pushed upon Chappie by Ninja. Through all of this it is again rather unclear if Blomkamp is attempting to make a statement about nature vs. nurture or a rigid dichotomy between acceptance and rebellion of youth, but the idea is there and the result of the film can only suggest the obvious conclusion that a balance is best.
The complaints with the film are certainly valid though as I have my own laundry list of issues. Ninja truly is one of the worst kinds of human beings and beyond his moral compass being completely out of whack he is simply stupid. Their stupid plan gets them nowhere except into the thick of making more and more bad decisions while Yo-Landi is somewhat redeemable for the way she becomes a caring mother-figure to Chappie, but we can't help but assume she's as dumb as Ninja for sticking with him. Jackman barely registers as Vincent as he is nothing more than a one-note bully jealous of the wiz kid's success who hatches a plan to spoil his success and is almost an unnecessary part of the entire film. As I said previously, I admire the way in which the number of strands the film puts into play early on come together in the third act and actually compliment each other rather well. And were it not for Vincent's invention playing a critical role in the resolution of the film I would have wished his character been trimmed and the story streamlined, but that again feels like asking Blomkamp to cut what was complained about prior. That said, you can feel Blomkamp attempting to deviate from all of the obvious comparisons “Chappie” will draw as far as movies with robots are concerned with the points of the personality Chappie takes on as well as his stance on guns that allows him to feel cooler as he uses throwing stars, knives and nunchucks instead. Combined with the default location of Johannesburg all of these make for enough quirks to consider it different while the pacing, especially at the beginning, is solid and sets a tone where the audience feels we could dig into what is about to be presented, but goes from interesting to traditional fairly quickly. Even Patel, who is something of a protagonist isn't really endearing as he literally looks at a cat poster to gain the necessary courage to put the actions of the film into motion. It is meant to be a funny, quirky touch that the audience smirks at which might have been how Blomkamp intended his entire film to be, but instead it comes off rather pathetic and a miscalculated opportunity, again much like the film itself.