Writer/director Neill Blomkamp doesn’t much care for humanity. Whether it be racism (District 9), classism (Elysium), or mankind’s tendency to corrupt innocence, as seen in his new film Chappie, it’s pretty clear that Blomkamp has a penchant for showing us at our worst. Chappie is a movie attempting to explore what it means to be human; to have consciousness. Many of the biggest problems with the film stem from the central disconnect between a robot searching for the meaning of his existence and the filmmaker’s seemingly negative bias toward that existence. Chappie is essentially human, but our filmmaker seems to be saying that might not be a very good thing.
Chappie is basically a Robocop remake, but one in which the autonomous machines are the good guys and the human/emotional controlled ones are reckless and dangerous. In the near future the city of Johannesburg, South Africa has almost entirely replaced their police force with autonomous police robots called ‘Scouts’. Since their inception these bots have managed to dramatically drop the crime rate in the city as well as busting up several large crime rings. They are effective, efficient, and seemingly perfect in their inhumanity. Chappie isn’t a movie that questions the morality of putting emotionless beings in charge of enforcing law and choosing who lives and dies. It seemingly trusts these beings more than any man-powered force.
The creator of the Scout program, Deon (Dev Patel) envisions more than that though. He wants to create a robot that can truly think, a robot with consciousness. This causes him to butt heads with Hugh Jackman’s Vincent, a psychotic coworker of Deon’s who is jealous of the Scout program’s success and the resulting failure of his own project: A human brain powered giant war walker robot called the Moose. Vincent seems to have a general distrust of robots and AI (although it’s never explained why) and believes that his solution is the safer alternative. He’s also completely insane. Also it was decided that his Moose was designed for a police force instead of the military because apparently the police need a giant robot with cluster bombs. If this was a smarter movie, I’d say this an attempt to comment on the militarization of our modern police, but Chappie is dumb, so I doubt it.
Before Deon is able to install his AI software into a scrapped Scout robot for testing, he’s kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi, played by…Ninja and Yolandi Visser of the ‘hit’ South African rap group Die Antwoord. Ninja and Yolandi are gangsters who wanted to make Deon turn off all the police bots so they can more easily kill people and steal stuff. Deon assures them that this is not possible, but as a consolation prize he says he can install his consciousness software into the robot and then they can teach it be a robot gangster and help them kill people and steal stuff (our protagonists, ladies and gentlemen). Thus, Chappie is born. He’s named Chappie because Die Antwoord says he looks like a ‘happy chappie’ and god this movie is stupid.
For some inexplicable reason Deon seems to not really understand how computers work and programmed Chappie without any prior data. He learns fast, but must be taught everything, including English. This isn’t how Artificial Intelligence works by the way. Regardless, because of this we spend most of the movie with Ninja and Yolandi being surrogate parents to the child-like Chappie. They are both terrible. Neill Blomkamp for whatever reason is obsessed with Die Antwoord and has been trying to get them into his movies for years (the lead on Elysium was offered to Ninja before Matt Damon because that’s a thing that makes sense). In Chappie, Blomkamp got his wish. Ninja and Yolandi end up with almost as much screen time as our title character. Die Antwoord are just playing gun toting versions of themselves. They listen to their own music when they’re driving in cars, they wear Die Antwoord t-shirts, and they spray paint the walls in bright colors because its super gangster. It’s difficult to put into words just how annoying these guys are, so I recommend you check out this music video:
Did this annoy the shit out of you? Me too! Chappie is basically this for two hours. Enjoy.
The biggest problem in Chappie, though is that it’s thematically all over the place. Most of the second act focuses on teaching Chappie about life. As our characters attempt to instruct the robot we see a metaphor about how parents influence their children and mold them into the people we want them to be. The conflict between Deon and Ninja centers around the different things they want for the robot; Deon wanting Chappie to be artistic and paint pretty pictures and Ninja wanting him to be “da #1 robot gangster, yo” and that painting pictures is stupid. The film treats this parental interference as a corrupting influence on the robot. Chappie starts out innocent, but as he is pulled in different directions by those around him, that innocence is exploited for other’s gain and eventually shattered. This ties neatly into Blomkamp’s ‘Humanity Sucks’ ideology: A computer that can think like a human ends up behaving as terribly as the rest of humanity. But this doesn’t map up to any of the other things going on the film.
Because at the same time Chappie is trying to have a deep conversation about what existence is. Can our consciousness be computed and mapped or is it something more? We’re also dealing with the continuing conflict between Deon and Crazy Co-worker Vincent which escalates into a city-wide struggle for power for some really stupid reason. Each of these stories has their own distinct theme, but they never come together into any kind of coherent through line. Chappie doesn’t really have a central conceit; it’s not really saying anything. The movie starts to talk about a lot of different, interesting things but then never really bothers to finish the conversation. This results in a really dumb story about some really dumb people.
As much as I’ve been beating up on some of the confusingly terrible choices made in this movie, I will say that Blomkamp can really shoot an action scene. And while none of the character motivations leading into any of the action make any kind of sense, the action is still enjoyable enough to watch, if emotionally hollow. The movie generally looks really good, including the CGI work on Chappie himself. There was never a moment when I didn’t think the machine looked like it wasn’t really standing there with the actors. It’s great work.
I’m really not sure what Blomkamp is trying to say with Chappie. The film has a lot of big, interesting ideas, but it fails to execute them on just about every level. The lead actors are annoying, characters don’t really behave like human beings, the plot is nonsensical and stupid, and it’s thematically inconsistent. If Chappie is really humanity’s last hope, as the tagline suggests, we’re all screwed.