My experiences with South African director Neill Blomkamp have been quite different to most others. I thought his much-lauded debut smash, District 9, was good but a little overrated, while I thought his widely-panned sophomore effort, Elysium, was flawed but still pretty damn entertaining.
Blomkamp’s third film, Chappie, is also quite flawed and inconsistent, but it’s also very bold, clever, funny and exciting. When it’s all said and done, Chappie could very well be my favourite of the lot.
The film is an unspecified time in South Africa, where a tech arms company has begun supplying the police force with droids. Think Robocop, basically, except they are pure machines with no human controls or elements. The brainchild behind the revolution, British engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is not satisfied with just AI droids and continues to work on a side project that purports to create consciousness. I’ll skip the details from here, but suffice it to say that the titular Chappie (voice and performance capture from long-time collaborator Sharlto Copley) ends up being the droid that brings this project to fruition, and naturally things go pear shaped when the droid ends up in the hands of criminals played by the duo from real-life rap-rave group Die Antwoord — Yolandi Visser and Ninja — who use the same names in the film.
It’s a high concept film with a lot of interesting ideas. First of all, from the moment of his “awakening”, Chappie is essentially a baby who cannot speak and is seeing the world for the very first time. His development, therefore, is completely dependent on what humans teach him, and the message at the heart of the film is about how we influence and shape our children into who they become. The way Blomkamp brings out this message is not exactly subtle, but it’s fascinating to watch as it unfolds and I was surprised that it had such an emotional impact on me.
I also liked how Chappie, the droid, is the central protagonist, rather than his creator or his “parents”. Copley is very good in convincing us that he is both a machine and a naive, impressionable child, and it’s also helped by the typically impressive photo-realistic special effects from Blomkamp in making Chappie look and feel as real as can be.
It’s also fun to see Hugh Jackman, the human everyone loves, play a baddie. Not just any baddie, but a jealous, conniving, douchey Australian baddie with a superb mullet. Sure, his character is completely one-dimensional, but it’s Hugh Jackman!
The ending of the film will polarise a lot of viewers as it takes the AI vs consciousness debate to the next level, but while I don’t exactly like where it headed I liked that Blomkamp was willing to take risks and take the film in a direction I doubt many people would have foreseen. It asks big questions without answering them compellingly, but at least it asks.
To be fair though, Chappie does have its fair share of problems. Whenever you talk about AI and super-intelligent robots you run into problems with logic and common sense. If Chappie is so clever then why would this happen? Why would he make these mistakes? And if he not as clever as we thought then why would he be able to do such intelligent things? My issues with problematic motivations extend beyond the robot to the human characters too. Sometimes what they do don’t make all that much sense, and it can be perplexing if you think about their thought processes too much.
Also, the film’s tone and pacing is a little all over the place. At times its dead serious, while other times its comical and even farcical, and sometimes the quick turns get confusing. The action comes and goes and can get super violent out of nowhere, and on top of that, Ninja and Yolandi are not the best actors in the world. They look their parts, but their characters feel more like caricatures than real people.
Having said all that, I still liked Chappie a lot. Notwithstanding all the rough edges, the film is always interesting, entertaining and unpredictable, and I think its heart is in the right place. And I haven’t even mentioned how hilarious it at times, even though the timing isn’t always impeccable. It’s not perfect by any means, and from certain angles — coherence, depth, visuals, etc — you might even say it’s Blomkamp’s weakest film, but there’s just something about this strange mix of AI: Artificial Intelligence, I Robot, Robocop and Short Circuit that struck a chord with me.
3.75 stars out of 5