First of all, let us take a moment to bask in the magnificence of that headline.
In science fiction, storylines involving AI, robotics and/or transhumanism usually lead to an exploration into the deep philosophical and existential questions of what it means to be human and how far machinery can go before it becomes consciousness. It feeds into the ultimate question surrounding the meaning of life itself. Whilst there have been some great movies that have come as a result of exploring these themes – Ghost in the Shell, Bladerunner, and Robocop, to name a few, it is fair to say that there has been a lot of duds and the AI plot can become extremely predictable and tedious when in the wrong hands, take last year’s Robocop remake or Wally Pfister’s Transcendence for example. I guess tackling the biggest questions is a difficult task for any person to answer, let alone film makers.
In someways, it is probably good that Chappie doesn’t grapple with these concepts so quickly.
Perhaps this is the cleverest thing about Chappie, the third film from sci-fi maestro Neill Blomkamp. It doesn’t go through the usual motions of droid building. In the fiction of Chappie, it is actually relatively easy to create a fully sentient human like AI, so long as you’re willing to stay up all night working on a computer in a red bull fueled binge. No really, it’s that easy! Whilst most robot movies get caught up in the process and morality of replicating human consciousness, Chappie focuses on what comes next – how does one direct this android to lead a worthy life? How does one effectively parent, in other words. It’s probably more accurate to view Chappie as a riff on the age old Pinnochio themes albeit through the familiar imagery of Robocop, Neill Blomkamp’s own District 9 and South African zef culture.
In the not to distant future, Johannesburg is ripped apart by criminal gangs and the police forces. In an effort to solve this problem, the government sanction the use of robotic policemen created by the Tetravaal corpration, you’re run of the mill private weapons corporation as all these sci-fi films must have. The Tetravaal dorids are able to crackdown on gangs with extreme prejudice and the results are super effective, with a massive reduction in crime and police casualties. So far, so Robocop. With the main difference being that a human idea of sentience and morals isn’t need to improve the overall effectiveness of an automated police force. Instrumental to the development of the robotic initiative is Dev Patel’s Deon Wilson, a computer genius and NERD who I guess yearns to create something more than robotic peace keepers. After the aforementioned red bull fueled all nighter in front of his computer screen, Deon somehow manages to create a sentient AI that can learn and think for itself. Good gravy!
After being forbidden by his boss (Sigourney Weaver) to install the chip to one of the police droids, because why would a weapons company need a sentient robot that can write poetry? Deon goes off and installs his AI in secret anyway. Unfortunately, his plans are spoiled when he gets kidnapped by Die Antwoord, who star as a group of neo-Johannesburg gangsters who are looking for a way to control the robots or at least turn them off in an attempt to pay back a ridiculous amount of money to one of the larger crime bosses of the area. Deon is forced to install the AI to the robot body and the gangsters effectively become the robot’s surrogate parents calling him Chappie.
Chappie essentially has the mindsight of a rapidly aging child with the intelligence of a computer, and whilst his adopted mother administers a sugary dosage of tender loving care, solidifying the thought that he is a precious snowflake, his surrogate gang banging father attempts to teach him via the school of hard knocks in attempt to turn him into a hard nut gun toting gangster bru. At the same time Deon comes round every other evening to teach Chappie how to be creative, to paint and write poetry, and generally not be a slave to tatooed undesirables who might think these things as ‘soft’. Chappie is effectively pulled between two different directions, meanwhile a hilariously hammed up Hugh Jackman desperately tries to get his own stupendously over the top walking battle tank, The Moose, off the ground thereby gaining all the military contacts. And profit.
After being attached to Peter Jackson’s never made Halo movie, Neill Blomkamp’s came on to the scene with District 9, which used a spaceship of stranded aliens contained within highly regulated refugee zones as allegory for immigration and all the issues associated with a government trying to control it’s borders. District 9 was a surprising smart dosage of sci-fi that provided a fresh perspective on the question of immigration as Sharlto Copley’s hapless bureaucrat Wikus is forced to experience life from the other side quite literally as he mutates into one of the aliens in a process of Cronenberg styled body horror. His follow up Elysium was less well received but continued the general trend of socially aware science fiction movies.
There are a lot of parallels between District 9 and Chappie of course, and District 9 will be the film that all of Blomkamp’s films will be judged. Like District 9, all the special effects computerized and otherwise are once again very naturally laced into a very gritty representation of South African urban life. Whilst District 9 tackled immigration, it feels as if Chappie is dealing with the concept of young people being manipulated and bullied into lives of violence as part of gang culture, which is undoubtedly a huge problem all over the world (see the fourth season of The Wire). Unfortunately, Chappie doesn’t really follow through on it’s premise and seems to be more interested in transhumanism, because human consciousness in robotic armour is cool awesome badass, man!
Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley returns to play Chappie, who gives the robot a childlike curiosity and innocence. Like the prawns in District 9, Chappie becomes sympathetic through his limited forms of expressing emotion which can be used to convey a wide variety of expressions. His initial animations are designed to be adorable and cute, as he explores the contents of the fridge and mimics He-man cartoons on the television. But he is soon reluctantly forced into shooting off guns and face a string of human atrocities one after the other. His language is hyper energetic and excited but he’s always grounded by a sense of morality. Chappie is basically born good, but it is through outside influences that he becomes in danger of becoming misdirected by undesirable forces. His rate of growth seems to encompass childhood and his rebellious teenage years before he gets set upon a more mightier path by the end.
Chappie is perhaps the biggest draw and is the emotional core of the movie, whilst most of the human characters feel devoid of any kind of intelligence, sentient, artificial or otherwise. Dev Patel has built a reputation on playing the earnest geek and he is no different here. A likable presence, even if his motives to create a sentient robot that can paint and recite poetry are a little undercooked, as if his sole motivations are to create a robotic version of Billy Elliot who by the end will stop all the fighting with his dancing. The sentiment is that Chappie is free to do whatever he wants in life, so long as it isn’t crime. It’s just weird to see the arts and creativity being held to such high esteem. I’m a bachelor of the arts, hell, I’m a master of the arts! I can tell you that the arts are not supported so passionately! I kept feeling Patel was too young to play the Geppetto of this tale, the fatherly mentor surely requires an actor with more experience and maturity. There at least needs to be a solid motivation into becoming a father figure to create life where there was none. Deon seems young and capable and creates a sentient AI just because he can, this could have been a defining character trait, but it still feels the film is wanting him to be a kindly influence to the wide eyed robot.
In contrast, I did find myself warming towards that actual gang who become Chappie’s adopted parents. Die Antwoord star as Ninja and Yolandi (I think they are playing themselves, their brand of hip hop dance music is all over the film’s soundtrack and Blomkamp seemingly came up with Chappie when listening to their music and fantasising about the pair parenting a robot child). Yolandi strikes me as exactly the kind of woman who would relish the opportunity to mother a robot, whilst Ninja initially comes over as a jerk and wannabe gangster who gradually accepts a more paternal responsibility by the film’s third act.
I feel I need to speak more about Hugh Jackman’s character in the film. Indeed he may require his very own essay. Jackman plays Vincent Moore, one of the most ludicrous villains in recent memory and I inevitably found myself drawn towards him just in terms of his sheer stupidity. Vincent Moore is an amalgamation of everything that is terrifying about Australians. An Aussie red neck who probably has a black widow spider in each of his pockets. Jackman plays an overly macho bible thumping Bogan, waltzing around in Steve Irwin shorts and mullet whilst emitting poorly conceived Australian colloquialisms that don’t even sound authentic in the first place (“I’m as mad as a frog in a sock”). He walks around the office with a pistol in his holster, as if he’s doing overtime at the LAPD. He thinks sentient robots are an affront against God.
He is responsible for creating The Moose, which is basically Chappie’s version of Robocop’s ED209 in all but name. The whole film is leading to the point in which The Moose is unleashed and once it does it is an exercise in video game shooter overkill (“How about a Clusterbomb?” he chuckles in his cruel Bohan voice). Somewhere there is probably a film to be made about this man’s deep seated love with his impractical, implausibly armed two legged battle tank. The tank is a mechanised version of Jackman’s character, over the top, overly armed, impractical, lacking finesse and brains, unloved by seemingly everyone, yet all of the film is building up to the moment in which it is let loose.
One of the scenes that made me laugh out aloud is set in the office of Tetravaal. Jackson’s character attempts to get more pally with Dev Patel’s sensitive nerd in the hopes to retrieve the MacGuffin computer chip which will be used to improve The Moose. He gives him playful jabs on the shoulder, belittles his masculinity in a passive aggressive manner before suddenly going full Bohan, pulling out a pistol and forcibly holding it against Deon’s head, demanding him to relinquish the chip. I mean this happens during actual office hours! Many co-workers notice and nobody says anything about it! Jackman’s character dissolves the situation by laughing it off, saying it was all just a joke and that his pistol isn’t even loaded. It’s still no excuse, where the hell is the discipline from management? You can’t just do that in a place of work! Not when Deon is so obviously the genius behind the corporation’s success and Moore’s Moose is the laughing stock of everyone everywhere. I mean who calls their walking battle tank The Moose anyway?
(Oh wait, sounds like something Halo would do…)
The lack of management is down to Sigourney Weaver’s character, Michelle Bradley, the managing director of Tetravaal. Perhaps it is a nod to Aliens, in which her character was routinely at the mercy of profit obsessed boardroom suits, thirty years later she is playing a suit herself. Whatever the motive it feels mostly pointless because she sits most of the movie out and one thinks her presence is merely there to lay the groundwork for Blomkamp’s next project, his highly publicised Alien 5, which will once again see Weaver reprise her role as Ripley.
In the end, most of the problems aren’t really down to the cast but the director and the script.
I think, the biggest inconsistency with Chappie is that it’s obsessed with the values that it so vehemently portrays as being wrong. Chappie is built to lead his own life, to be free to make his own way. He is manipulated into adopting life as a gang banger. Though he knows that killing is wrong, he is easily convinced that throwing stars will put people to sleep and therefore is okay. This is a robot that can learn how to save a human consciousness to a USB stick but somehow not realise that sharp objects to fleshy bodies may cause life threatening harm. You get to the point when you reaslise you’re overthinking this movie. I thought it would be clever, but it’s not and then it descends into an all out robot vs robot bullet fest. Hey, at least it isn’t as bad as transformers.
There is a trend on YouTube, in which popular creators create their own action sequences, with choreographed fight scenes, special effects and lots and lots of guns. I could point you to the work of Freddie Wong or TomSka, but the results always show an obsession, even a fetishisation of guns and military styled jingoism that feels similar to the pornification of firearms in video games. These videos always feel jarring to me, it always feels as if the YouTube personalities are getting off at the prospect of playing with guns, as if guns are awesome. Blomkamp may have a keen eye for design and style, even a larger budget but I’m increasinging thinking of Neill Blomkamp less as the talented director who made District 9 and more a cinematic version of these gun fetish YouTubers.
Everything feels like overkill. Perhaps I am missing something. Perhaps I’m getting older and I’m not falling for it anymore, Kingsman rubbed me the wrong way too. But Robocop was hardly a work of subtlety, indeed the violence is still over the top by today’s standards. The execution of Murphy is ingrained in my consciousness as the worst thing to happen to any movie character ever. Needless to say, something about the violence in Chappie felt tonally inconsistent with the sum of it’s smaller parts. Perhaps this was the way Blomkamp was always going to go, this was the guy who was going to do the Halo movie after all. I just hope this shooter nonsense isn’t the direction Blomkamp has planned for his new Alien film. Because let’s face it, he’s bringing back Hicks and judging from the artwork, he’ll probably be bringing back pulse rifles.
The biggest problem with Chappie is that it paints everything in such broad strokes. Perhaps this is down to it’s attachment to Zef culture. I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating, it’s a film where a sentient computer AI is created within a red bull binge. It’s a film where consciousness can be downloaded and uploaded and created, yet never explained or foreshadowed at all. There’s only two roads Chappie can go down, the good and the bad, the path of the sensitive artist or the path of the indestructible bad ass gang banger. There’s elements of Robocop here and there but none of the satire or nuanced world building. There are elements of Pinnochio as well, but instead of the whale in the third act, there is only a great big Moose.
In the end Chappie has the capacity to be entertaining noise, but those looking for a nuanced sci-fi parable in the vein of District 9 will ultimately be left disappointed.
MAYBE WATCH THESE INSTEAD, EH?
Short Circuit 2 – For Gangsta robots yo.
Joe Dirt – For post millennium redneck comedies with heart and proper mullets
Robocop – Because do you really need an excuse to rewatch this?