Chappie review: Artificial humanity
There’s a scene early on in Chappie between Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Newsroom) and Sigourney Weaver (Rabbit Ear: Peachboy, Happily N’Ever After, and maybe one or two others…) that quietly defines the film.
Patel plays engineer Deon Wilson, the beleaguered and oddly underappreciated maker of a series of autonomous robots built to help the Johannesburg Police Department take back the streets. Despite radically changing the world with his invention, he works in a tiny cubicle and has no apparent authority or influence – but that’s not the issue, and it never really comes up.
Wilson meets with Weaver’s Michelle Bradley, the CEO of the company responsible for manufacturing the robots. He explains to her that he has cracked the code and created the world’s first true artificial intelligence. Despite this monumental moment in history, a moment that would potentially shape the course of the future in much the same way that splitting the first atom did, Bradley’s reaction is essentially “meh.”
Not “think of the ethical dilemma!” or “the world isn’t ready!” Instead, Bradley is annoyed by Wilson’s request to proceed, much in the same way a boss in an office might be if a subordinate came to them and requested 19 cases of cheese whiz.
And with that, Chappie’s tone is set.
Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) returns once again to the genre of science fiction, with an emphasis on science. Like his previous films, Chappie takes an incredible but realistic idea that – while extraordinary – is grounded in reality. In this case, it focuses on the birth of an AI. And like Blomkamp’s other works, there is an immersive visual style that combines high technology with low society. And like his other films, his characters lack any real depth.
Following the scene where Bradley was inconvenienced by a revolutionary breakthrough, Wilson proves that his company has a startling lack of security as he drives off with a decommissioned “scout” robot and several components. He just sort of loads up his van with millions of dollars in equipment and takes off.
On the way home he is confronted by three incredibly dumb criminals, who need to pull off a major heist to pay off a vicious criminal named Hippo (Elysium’s Brandon Auret), who for no real reason is subtitled. The criminals decide that as the maker of the scouts, Wilson must have a remote control to turn the robots off when they commit a robbery.
This is, of course, ridiculous. Instead, Wilson convinces them that he has a one of a kind robot. The criminals are convinced they can use it to pull off a major heist, so they let Wilson get to it. He then boots up the AI that they name Chappie, but it is little more than a child.
All the while a rival at Wilson’s company, a former soldier and mulleted engineer named Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), is busy twirling his proverbial mustache and plotting evil things. Because he’s eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil, or something. His nefarious plot is so badly out of whack on the pro/con scale, he would probably get off on an insanity plea.
From there the film becomes a wee bit schizophrenic. Despite his metal shell, Chappie is basically an infant, although he speeds through his adolescence in days. At this point, Wilson just sort of disappears, leaving Chappie to be “raised” by the criminals. Chappie then becomes an adorable, metallic gangster as he questions what it means to be human. Sort of. It’s just skin deep.
If there is any one, single problem with Chappie, it is the character Ninja, one of the three criminals. Ninja (played by, um, Ninja), is the type of guy you see at a bar and you hope his bar stool breaks and he hurts himself in the fall. He’s the guy on the YouTube video you’re excited to see get hit in the nuts. That would be fine for a character you want to root against, but Ninja becomes a central character with an arc that just sort of expects you to buy into it.
He is joined by Yolandi (also played by, well, Yolandi), who becomes a surrogate mother to Chappie. The third member of the criminal crew, America (played by America – just kidding. Played by The Walking Dead’s Jose Pablo Cantillo), is more supporting than the others.
Ninja (whose real name is Watkin Tudor Jones) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) in real life make up the South African hip hop group Die Antwoord. Their acting inexperience is something of a boon, at least in the sense that they both come across as authentic. The problem isn’t the actors, but rather the characters. They just aren’t well developed, especially Ninja, and so much of the film rests on him.
Picking up the slack, however, is Chappie, brought to life by the always entertaining Sharlto Copley (District 9, Maleficient).
Every scene Chappie is in is one that is worth watching. The character is refreshingly unique, and Copley’s mannerisms when carried out by a robot, are mesmerizing. It also helps that the effects are stunning. Chappie looks real ins every way. The story lacks the emotional weight that you’d expect, but Chappie and Copley make a confused film at least somewhat entertaining.
Chappie just doesn’t know where it is going. Take a look at the tag line in the poster, “Humanity’s last hope isn’t human.” That’s a great tag line. Shame it has almost no relevance in this movie and has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.
Chappie is filled with some fascinating ideas that go nowhere. You have the first ever AI, a robot learning what it means to be human, a new consciousness being taught by morally broken people, and at least two other major ideas that would change the world (that fall under the spoiler category). Not a single one of them is properly explored though, which makes the whole feel diluted. And those ideas are so powerful that it’s hard to ignore them.
Chappie is sort of like a story about the Apollo 11 moon landing that focuses on the launch pad instead of the launch. It touches on something really interesting, but goes nowhere.
(Chappie is rated R, with a running time of 1 hour 54 minutes)