Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
People seem really unsure about what to make of Neill Blomkamp these days. The South African writer/director has made two major films prior to this one. The first, District 9, was critically praised and the second, Elysium, was critically panned. Therefore, with the release of his third major film, critics and audiences are curious to see where it will fall. Personally I think this film is ok. Not great but not terrible either. I do think that Blomkamp has the potential to make great films, but there are certain fatal flaws that are holding him back. Chappie has the makings of a great, insightful film with big themes and ideas but it ends up falling flat due to the characters and the narrative.
Blomkamp introduces us to a future Johannesburg in which robots have been introduced into the police force. They prove highly successful due to their state-of-the-art armour plating and their semi-AI programs that make them highly effective in combat situations. These robots are the inventions of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who is lauded for providing the weapons manufacturer Tetravaal with his creation much to the derision of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a former soldier with his own alternative machine that was rejected. When Deon finishes compiling a program of what he claims will be the world’s first true artificial intelligence, he decides to test it on a damaged robot despite his request being disapproved by his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). As he attempts to smuggle the robot out of the facility he is kidnapped by a team of gangsters who demand that he provide them with a failsafe for his machines that they can use for a large heist. When Deon reasons that such a task is impossible he instead offers them an artificially intelligent robot that they may use as they please. Deon is therefore allowed to continue his experiment and thus we are introduced to Chappie (Sharlto Copley).
Chappie is effectively a child, mentally and emotionally, but possesses a highly advanced mind that can learn and adapt at an exponential level. He comes into the world completely innocent of its ways and it falls down to Deon and the gangsters Yolandi and Ninja (played quite unconvincingly by the members of Die Antwoord) to raise him by offering their three different perspectives. Deon encourages Chappie to embrace his full creativity and potential, insisting that he can do anything he sets his mind to. Yolandi nurtures Chappie and forms a motherly bond with him. Ninja wants to use Chappie for his heist and tries to raise him as a gangster, teaching him how to shoot, fight and swear. Through Chappie’s upbringing the film tries to explore such themes as love, growth, the virtue of innocence, the potential of technology, and the imperfection of man, but fails to offer anything particularly new or insightful on these topics.
The characters of this film are its greatest weakness. Many of the characters, particularly the film’s main villain Vincent Moore, are unimaginative clichés who prove to be inconsistent in their motivations. The Hugh Jackman character was a wildly erratic engineer who used to be a soldier (which I guess is why he’s allowed to carry a gun in his office?) who appears to possess some sort of fanatical religious devotion that is never really elaborated and who constantly changes at the flip of a coin. He really is as nonsensical as he sounds. In addition are the South African gangsters who are very one-dimensional and who are similarly inconsistent in their motivations. Inconstancy is fine with a character like Chappie who is constantly learning new things and constantly evolving, but is annoying coming from these other characters. The rest are simply bland one-note characters played by talented, under-used actors (this film was a complete waste of Sigourney Weaver’s time).
The film has plenty of good qualities. The special effects, much like District 9, are excellent and authentically unpolished. The action and the humour are decent. Chappie himself is an interesting enough character that I was invested in his journey. He possesses a charming innocence that allows the audience to empathise with him. It therefore becomes distressing (in a good way) for the audience to watch the other characters taking advantage of Chappie’s childish naivety and to watch him become all too aware of the harsh realities of the world he lives in. Blomkamp has proven to everyone that he does have good ideas; his problem is in their application. He is clearly making a bold attempt to tackle grand, complex themes but whatever insights he might have to offer end up getting lost in the muddled plot and the illogical characters. The ending, again like District 9, is left open with the story left somewhat unresolved, presumably because Blomkamp is setting the scene for a sequel. It is my hope that Blomkamp can learn to overcome his weaknesses and return to the heights of District 9.