Despite its intriguing rumination on immortality, 'Chappie' is too distracted with other, half-baked concerns
Chappie Columbia Pictures
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Hugh Jackman, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret and Sigourney Weaver
Rated R / 2 hours
March 6, 2015
(out of four)
Somewhere in the middle of Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, it pivots. It's a relatively subtle shift, but a crucial one. There's no plot twist or anything like that. And there's nothing that dramatically alters the narrative fabric. But the change is distinct nonetheless.
Instead of following through on its apparent (and rather conventional) intentions, the film drifts away from the bigger story we thought it was telling and zeroes in on one element in particular. It becomes narrower and, if not altogether successful, at least more interesting. And so a film about technology and military might and sentient artificial intelligence becomes a film about the quest for immortality, with everything else falling into place around that idea for the last 45 minutes or so.
Prior to that, Chappie seemed like something of a RoboCop rehash (both the original and the remake, though more reminiscent of the latter) filtered through the South African military industrial complex, and in the service of a fish-out-of-water, E.T.-like story about a robot's burgeoning consciousness. Chappie - voiced and motion-captured by Sharlto Copley, and otherwise brought to life by a terrific special-effects team - is the brainchild of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a kind-hearted tech wunderkind who works for a weapons manufacturer, Tetravaal. His creations have done wonders for the company, putting it near the global forefront of the blossoming police robotics business - much to the chagrin of his fellow developer, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), an ex-military alpha male whose bigger, more muscular, human-operated machines look bulky and primitive by comparison.
If Blomkamp had more of a sense of humor, he'd have found a way to better exploit the nerd/tough guy dynamic between Patel and Jackman, particularly with the way their inventions visually embody their physical and ideological differences. But that's a whole other issue.
Deon's success still hasn't earned him the goodwill from his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), to go off the reservation and explore his passion project, a new software prototype for an artificial intelligence with the consciousness and emotional framework of a human. Despite Bradley's refusals, Deon takes matters into his own hands, "borrowing" a faulty, nearly defunct robot to use as a guinea pig for his new software.
And he probably would have gotten away with it, if only his timing weren't so unfortunate. A trio of gangsters, on the hunt for a weaponized robot to use for their own criminal purposes, hijacks his van and transports it (with Dev and the robot in tow) to their base on the outskirts of town. But what they wind up with isn't quite what they bargained for. The robot they got, Chappie, is essentially an infant, having only just been implanted with the new A.I. software.
Deon and the three hoods come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement. They get to keep Chappie for themselves, but Deon gets to come by regularly to teach and develop his prized creation.
Starring as the two principal gangsters are Die Antwoord rappers Ninja and Yolandi Visser, playing characters named Ninja and Yolandi. (This is the same career strategy that Tony Danza has had for decades.) Within their ranks, which also includes the hot-headed third wheel nicknamed Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), differences arise about what to do with Chappie. Yolandi's maternal instinct instantly kicks in, as she becomes nurturing and protective, even going so far as to read him bedtime stories at night. But Ninja and Amerika merely want to train him to help them steal cars and pull off heists.
This is all well and good as the setup for a tech-minded crime thriller or a broader rumination on the uses of mankind's technological creations, but the film only kicks into gear once Chappie becomes aware of his own mortality. At that point, the film becomes so single-minded in its intentions that the other plot threads are 50 percent distraction and 50 percent facilitation for Chappie's personal odyssey.
The idea itself isn't entirely unexpected; the fact that his operating system only has a few days' worth of life remaining is introduced early on. But if anything, it feels like that's merely going to be treated like a pseudo-tragic backdrop; instead, it's the spark for the character's defiant and desperate attempt to survive, which defines most of the last hour. And lest Chappie get the idea to start waxing poetic about seeing attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, the film goes full-bore into action-movie mode, where it actually flourishes. Chappie looks more or less just like District 9 (as well as the earthbound scenes of Elysium), but Blomkamp remains a fine action filmmaker, if not exactly the most inventive or versatile visual stylist.
The film's thematic shift - from political to existential - is the more jarring one. Blomkamp establishes so many different concepts that, by the end, they feel like little more than lip service. It seems like he wants to make a movie about militarization and about the ethics of artificial intelligence - he just doesn't have much to say about them, at least not beyond what many other movies have already exhaustively said. So he refocuses on the human aspect, and therein finds something he can latch onto.
Chappie isn't the disaster it has been made out to be; mostly it just depends on what area you're looking at. As an action movie, it works well enough. As an attempt at social commentary, it doesn't work at all. And as an exploration of consciousness and creation, it is at its most intriguing, but ultimately only half-succeeds. In situations like this, I hesitate to blame a film for having too many ambitions at once, but in Chappie's case, it gets too caught up in its extraneous subplots, and takes too long to find where it really wanted to go all along.