Ever since his 2009 debut, District 9, writer/director Neill Blomkamp has been one director I’ve been willing to give a chance. He managed to combine complex philosophical and sociological ideas with sci-fi action tropes to make the both intriguing and palatable. It’s a tricky balance to try and reach. Too many big ideas and the thing becomes dour. Too much popcorn-y explosions and shoot ‘em ups and it becomes a Michael Bay parody. His follow-up, Elysium, while not a bad film, proved that it’s a balance that Blomkamp himself still struggles with.
Chappie, his third movie, is no different. There are a cavalcade of big, deep ideas imbedded in its 2-hour run time. Ideas ranging from the nature of our creators to the power of parenting on nascent minds to the concept of life without a biological body. And there are the usual chases, gun fights and explosions that feature robotic soldiers, giant mechs and bullets galore. But does it come together?
In the near future, the crime in Johannesburg, South Africa has gone beyond even the capabilities of its large police force to contain. Officers are gunned down in vicious battles with gangs and nothing seems capable of stemming the tide. Desperate authorities turn to Tetravaal, a local robotics firm led by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) which produces a new line of robotic officers. Dubbed “Scouts”, this mechanized police force can respond to any threat, take any beating and be back out patrolling the streets in no time. Programmed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the Scouts quickly stem the tide of criminal activity in Johannesburg and everyone is happy. Everyone, that is, by Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), another Tetravaal engineer whose own MOOSE program has been shunted to the side in favor of the Scouts.
But for Deon, his semi-artificial intelligence program that runs the Scouts is not his goal. He is pushing towards true artificial intelligence; an A.I. that can think, can learn and can be an independent being. Rejected by Michelle, he still takes a decommissioned Scout and the program needed to boot it in order to see his vision through. But when he gets kidnapped by three desperate gangsters (Jose Pablo Cantillo and Yo-Landi & Ninja Vi$$er), his creation ends up in the hands of the unlikeliest teachers. Dubbed “Chappie”, his AI-installed robot is like a newborn; unaware of things and unsure of its place in the world, but capable of learning and of doing things no Scout could.
The first thing to mention is the work done by Weta Digital in bringing Chappie to life. Voiced by Sharlto Copley, Chappie manages to inhabit the same breathing, living space as his human counterparts. The switch from tangible, robotic props to digitally-made living actor is seamless. You never question Chappie’s presence. And Copley adopts a childlike voice for Chappie that differs from the robotic tone of the Scout it was before. He sounds inquisitive and innocent when he’s reading a child’s book with Yo-Landi and then silly when Ninja and Yankie are teaching him how to be street-tough.
The rest of the performances range from good to okay; requiring very little stretching or expanding from their starting roles. Patel plays Deon like a kinder Dr. Frankenstein, pushing forward and forward in his work but never pausing to consider the consequences. It is amusing that he dubs himself “The Maker” of Chappie and his first inclination is to set down rules for Chappie to follow. Meanwhile Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore like a bruised frat boy who can’t believe the hot girl went with the geek instead. He’s desperate to prove the Scouts are a bad idea and he goes and does all he can to prove Chappie is a threat. It’s not that deep, but it’s fun to see his comeuppance. As for Sigourney Weaver, it’s a glorified cameo at best.
The biggest – and likely most discussed – performances fall to Yo-Landi & Ninja Vi$$er; two-thirds of the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord. To say it’s like nothing we’ve seen is saying something. What’s intriguing for me is how they found ways to make us care for their relationships with Chappie. Yo-Landi becomes the “Mommy” to Chappie, teaching him, caring for him and seeing in the mechanical creature a surrogate child. Ninja, meanwhile, becomes “Daddy,” but a stern and tough Daddy who is hoping his metal boy will toughen up, stop playing with dolls and follow Daddy into the family business: crime. At times, the interaction between Chappie, Ninja and Cantillo’s Yankie are hilarious. At other times – a scene where Ninja leaves Chappie behind to toughen him – are sad. But it shows how much you can come to care for a metal boy.
Like I intimated above, there are some big ideas within Chappie. For starters, the whole allegory of the Maker. Deon brings Chappie into the world, commands him not to do evil things and then leaves him behind with a criminal couple for parents. Is Chappie destined to become a criminal then (as determinism would postulate)? Can Chappie even have a destiny if he’s not a living, breathing thing or is sentience and conscience sufficient (metaphysical study)? And can conscience be transferred from one body to another without a being losing an essential part of his/her/its being?
There’s also the role of technology in our society being discussed here. The Scout program only comes into being because the human police are overwhelmed. The Scouts, however, do not tire. They can be easily replaced or repaired. They cannot be threatened or corrupted. But, as Vincent Moore states, there’s levels of nuance that are lost when you turn police work over to automatons. And what happens if someone throws the switch on the robot police? We become dependent on our phones, but if they go down, it’s not a life or death situation. If the police go offline, who’s protecting society?
But mostly, Chappie touches on the “nature vs nurture” question. Chappie is raised by two hoodlums – one kind and gentle; the other hard and desperate. And Chappie, like any other kid, takes after his “parents”. He wants to please them. He wants to do as they tell him. But he’s also got the instructions that his “Maker” gave him. They create a conflict within the robot that he has a hard time resolving. His parents tell him one thing. His creator commanded another. What is he to do, specially as his parents and him need for him to break from his creator’s orders?
But do all these questions make for a complete movie? I’m sad to say that they don’t necessarily all come together as Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell would have liked. The movie, at times feels too eager to go from beat to beat to beat without necessarily allowing for a natural transition. The manner in which it all comes together – Deon and his A.I., the broken Scout 22, Ninja & Yo-Landi’s money woes, etc – feels at time too slapped together. Like it needed another turn at the writing desk to bring it all together.
Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoyed Chappie and still hope there’s an audience out there for it. Like I said, I like Blomkamp. He is the kind of director I hope keeps following his muse, because he’s likely got other great movies in him. But there’s having great ideas and there’s seeing those ideas through into a narrative and cohesive whole. I don’t know that Chappie ever gets to be a whole film, even if emotionally, it’s a great ride.