We wanted Chappie to be a good movie. We desperately wanted to get back on the Neill Blomkamp train. But sadly, Chappie gets lost in the very questions it marvels at itself for asking, with violence that's so over-the-top it would be laughable... if it wasn't so absurdly grotesque. However Chappie, the robot itself, is great.
Right out the gate, Chappie waves a handful of "Oh shit" flags. The movie starts out with a collection of talking heads addressing the existence of Chappie — as the first sentient robot on Earth has obviously made waves in the media. The film then jumps back 18 months to the pre-Chappie days, and never again attempts to address what's being said in any of these earlier interviews. It's questionably similar to Blomkamp's early work on District 9, but minus all the analytical breakdowns or emotional touchstones. While District 9 was presented like a documentary dissecting the actions of one rogue MNU agent, Chappie's attempt at framing feels more like a half-hearted, "You guys like newsreel stuff, right?" This is a pretty good example of what the rest of the movie is like.
Back in the near future of Johannesburg, South Africa we're informed that the modern-day police force has been almost entirely replaced with robotic "scouts," an android army supplied by Sigourney Weaver's weapons company. But really these bunny-eared police bots are the brainchild of Dev Patel's character Deon Wilson, who works at Weaver's company along with Hugh Jackman, playing failed scientist/meathead Vincent Moore. Patel's character and his adorable but deadly robots are wildly celebrated as the future of policing; meanwhile, Jackman, an inventor of a gigantic, expensive killing machine (that looks like RoboCop's ED-209 painted brown) is fuming because no one cares about HIS creation, the "Moose" (a big cumbersome robot, get it? You get it). While Patel is the stereotypical face of skinny-necked scientists, all creative discovery and patience (everything good in this world), Jackman's caricature is the bully (everything wrong in this world). Patel is patient and kind and just wants to secretly create artificial intelligence in his apartment. Jackman is the absolute opposite of this, a live-action version of a Disney villain. Every effort was made into crafting some sort of office Gaston character out of Jackman, from his mullet to his cargo shorts. When he isn't wandering around palming a rugby ball, he's pointing his gun at Patel's character in his cubicle (an action that no other character in the building responds to, by the way). But underneath it all Jackman is really acting out because no one wants to fund his monstrous Moose. He takes this personally and turns it into a moral quest. You see, the Moose is piloted remotely by a human. The Scouts respond to programming and decide to shoot whenever the droid sees fit. But since Jackman is basically Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds, the audience is asked to ignore his pretty solid moral qualms about policing the streets with robots that cannot be held accountable for their actions (he's right).
Instead of delving into the infinitely more interesting moral dilemma between these two differing opinions, the movie makes up the audience's mind for them by unleashing the Moose and its scads of military grade bombs and machine guns. The cartoon rage in Jackman rises and eventually escalates to the point where he commands the Moose to physically rip another character in half (tossing the severed torso away and spraying all the organs against the wall). So if you had any doubt about who was the bad guy, it's Jackman. Because this movie thinks you're a moron. And I'm not even going to address Weaver's ostensibly powerful weapons CEO having her mind instantly swayed by the obviously insane Jackman when things get rough. Ugh.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the musical group Die Antwoord are plotting their next big heist. Ninja and Yolandi (which are also their stage names in real life as well) need money, so they devise a plan to kidnap Patel, because this plot isn't going to fucking happen on its own. The streetwise twosome abduct Patel, but suddenly discover they're not going to get what they need from him, either money or an off switch for the police robots. Instead, Patel trades his life for a broken Scout he was planning to download his secret artificial intelligence program into. This is the birth of Chappie.
The damnable part of it all is that Chappie — the robot, not the film — is great. Really, truly great. In fact, Chappie may be one of the most exciting AIs on screen to date. Chappie begins his new found life with a mind like an infant, he grows and learns fast, but he has to be taught. Yolandi and Ninja become his adoptive Mummy and Daddy, and Patel his "maker." And even though the thieves threatened to kill Patel (a lot) he continues to return to their home and help Chappie grow. Patel and Yolandi treat Chappie like the child he is, and urge him to be good. However, Ninja is impatient and just wants to use Chappie for his robotic strength and indestructible veneer.
For a glorious midsection of Chappie, the film attempts to explore the world of nurturing the mind of a sentient robot. Patel commands Chappie to never kill, but Ninja finds away around it simply by stepping into the Father role he never really wanted. The child Chappie becomes a teenager and slowly he starts making his own decisions, and rationalizing right vs. wrong. Should Chappie live his life as the weapon for his father (what he was built for) or become something else? Can he develop is own personality in spite of the commands of those around him? True, absolutely none of these themes are subtle. There's literally a scene where Chappie sits down and paints a picture much to the chagrin of Ninja. But Chappie the character is engaging enough to hold my attention. I could watch a whole movie that was just Chappie participating in wacky hijinks with his gangster family. And I unabashedly loved every part of Chappie's formative hours.
But at this point the movie is juggling several big ideas with no signs of stopping (and trust me, there's even more getting tossed into the mix by the end). Chappie's personality development and eventual grasp of his own personal value probably should have been the heart of this movie. But Chappie never knew what it wanted to be about. Even the marketing of this film was utterly clueless. "Humanity's last hope isn't human?" Note, at no point in this film is Chappie trying to save humanity.
So instead Chappie is just about everything. Which makes it about absolutely nothing until the end, when everyone is shot full of bullets.
Eventually Jackman's character catches wind of the sentient robot and uses it to his advantage. Through a needlessly complicated string of events and odd techno-babble, Jackman's Moose is let out of the cage. And it's here that the many, many questions raised through Chappie (what is a soul, what is a conscious, are humans any different from a computer program is you can map someone's consciousness, art vs. violence, are we who raised us, nature versus nurture and there's even ANOTHER bushel of tropes that are tacked on at the very end about mapping the human mind but it's just too much already) are ignored and replaced with needless horror. Lots of interesting moral calamities are set up and ripe for exploring in Chappie, but this film is content to writhe around in its own carnage.
District 9 was an excellent example of video game style violence being executed in an astonishingly clever and narratively exciting manner — but there's no justification for the bombastic and endless finale of carnage. True, there were a few moments when Chappie himself got blood on his hands and it was a clever growth moment for the character, but over all the whole movie felt like a set up because Neill Blomkamp wanted to film graphic fight scene with Robocop's ED-209.
Chappie is one of the great original characters — he's Johnny 5 with more soul and a deeper personality. He's also a visual effects wonder. And Sharlto Copley's actions and reactions to his upbringing are enchanting. The whole film, really, is really well shot. There are moments of color and beauty that help Chappie shine. But it's not enough to save this movie from itself. And I'm left wondering how much of a narrative role Peter Jackson really played in District 9, as this is the second Blomkamp movie that merely pokes at larger questions with a stick and then takes a bow merely for asking them. Chappie could have been really smart science fiction, but instead it's just carnage. So if you do check out Chappie go for the robot (he's great) but lower expectations for everything else.
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