In its smarter moments, Chappie is a film with big goals. It wants the audience to care about heavy-duty topics like artificial intelligence or the nature of consciousness. It tries to decode the human condition, by reducing it to something as mundane as streams of data, transferred between computers. Granted, it takes a clever route to get there: director Neill Blomkamp uses the gritty, occasionally post-apocalyptic visuals (usually set in South Africa) he’s become known for as a delivery mechanism, wrapping up his ideas in the story of a near-future police android who becomes the first-ever example of A.I.
But like its main character, Blomkamp’s film has a crucial flaw. Instead of drawing us into the complex concepts at the core of the movie, the film’s characters become a major stumbling block. They lack anything resembling an inner life – they’re essentially mouthpieces for the ideologies of the various factions fighting over the robot. Despite being played by talented actors like Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and Dev Patel, the characters end up bouncing off each other, pinballing around the story, until Blomkamp is forced to resort to comic-book-style conveniences to get out of the corner he’s painted himself into.
Don’t listen to the snarky comments online - it’s not appropriate to make any loud pronouncements about Blomkamp’s career trajectory. Chappie is still only his third feature film, and it’ll take more than the lukewarm quality of 2013’s Elysium and this new release to truly offset the success the director had with 2009’s District 9. But Blomkamp does need to learn from the mistakes of his past two films: it’s not enough to cherry-pick social or technological questions and drop them into a sci-fi context. There has to be at least one character for us to side with; twitchy idealogues like Deon Wilson (Patel) don’t quite cut it.
The issues in Chappie likely start with the titular character: it’s possible that we’re meant to fall in love with this blocky robot, like we did with R2-D2 in Star Wars or with TARS from Interstellar. When we’re introduced to Chappie, he’s just known as “Scout 22”, until his new programming (installed by Deon against his company’s wishes) suddenly turns him from a super-effective policing tool into a self-aware creation. This leads to plenty of montages of Chappie (Sharlto Copley) doing cute child-like things as he learns about the world, and these progress into cheeky sequences of Chappie picking up rebellious habits from the criminals who adopt him.
There’s some intermittent fun to be had in these stretches, but the robot’s behaviour is ultimately only in service to the plot. Chappie’s cute antics are the film’s explanation for why the criminals (played by South African musicians Die Antwoord) adopt him, and his rebellion against Deon - in scenes of him stealing cars and robbing an armoured truck - feels more like a calculated method of setting up the climax.
So let’s talk about that third act in a bit more detail. The villain of the piece is an ambitious, borderline psychotic former soldier named Moore (Jackman) who works for the same robotics company as Deon. He wants to convince the local police to buy a heavily-armed alternative to Deon’s scout robots. To do that, Moore instigates mass chaos by turning off the scouts, and in a very roundabout way, it’s up to Chappie and Deon to stop him.
This leads to a few surprisingly (some might say unnecessarily) gory fight scenes, which in turn force Blomkamp to commit a cardinal sin of science fiction and superhero films: as screenwriter Max Landis would put it, he “kills death”. The film’s solution for Chappie’s newfound self-awareness ends up being exploited in the film’s final minutes to undo the deaths of some key characters, and makes the seemingly tragic earlier scenes less meaningful as a result. Quite simply, it’s hard to care about people who were never in any real danger, and who can simply be uploaded somewhere else.
The film suggests this is a technological triumph, but all it does is raise a bunch of ontological questions that Blomkamp has no interest in answering, and it leaves the film with a rather bleak message about human nature.
If you’re a fan of Blomkamp’s work, fear not - you may be able to get some enjoyment out of his well-constructed action scenes and industrial, believable production design. And there’s something to be said for a director who can feature his home country of South Africa and attract a North American audience. But those technical and aesthetic successes are not enough to redeem a movie that seems happy to jump between big ideas without really caring where, or if, it lands. Chappie gets one and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of Neill Blomkamp’s latest effort? Do you still think of the director as a fresh voice, or is he starting to seem a bit formulaic? Join the discussion in the comments!