It’s not often that a film as creative and charming as Chappie is so uniformly critically maligned, boasting a whopping 29% on Rotten Tomatoes (well below many of the critical by-blows that made it to our list of oddly brilliant comedic flops). Neill Blomkamp’s third feature is indeed everything that its accusers say—it is socially unsophisticated, portraying a world made up of equal parts hulking “bad guy” criminals and white collar citizens that the film paints as innocent bystanders. There is a flawed, childish narrative at the center of the plot, and far too much geeky gore. Yet despite this, Chappie demonstrates flashes of brilliance and the best attempt to date to really pay homage to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Producers: James Bitonti, Victoria Burkhart, Simon Kinberg, Ben Waisbren
Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch
Editors: Julian Clark, Mark Goldblatt
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
US Theatrical Release: March 6, 2015
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
The plot opens, like each of Blomkamp’s films so far, in a near future dystopia. This time it’s a Warriors-esque Johannesburg, where an all out war has developed between cops—now armed with autonomous (but not intelligent) robotic “scouts”—and crews of super-violent criminal gangs trying to run the city like despots. The scouts are winning the war against these imposing thugs and the weapons manufacturer responsible for their design is raking in the profits. This is great news for CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) and Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the brilliant young engineer responsible for their design. However, their near-psychopathic ex-military co-worker Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose own design for a hyper-militarized police robot has been passed over in favor of the scout, is livid at this success. The antipathy between Deon and Vincent provides the central antagonism of one of the films several orbiting plotlines—and among them it is the weakest.
Deon, however he may be embroiled with the jostling between Vincent and Michelle, is uninterested in anything to do with the weapons manufacturer he works for. He spends his nights working on programming a new operating system for the robots he designed, one that could make them capable of creative thought—the first true artificial intelligence. Science fiction films and literature have a great fear of this moment—called the singularity—stemming back as far as the late 1950’s, but here the advent of artificial intelligence is not something to fear as much as it is a beautiful and world shattering creation, like the wheel or the printing press. Deon’s invented consciousness is uploaded into a recently decommissioned scout and just like that, a new intelligence is born. Even as Deon is kidnapped by a crew of inept thugs (led by Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser), the creature that is born inside this machine is new and wonderful.
This sounds like a lot of plot, and it certainly is. Neill Blomkamp has never been known for narrative elegance. But what’s remarkable about this film is its intricate portrayal of the development of this being, which Yo-Landi names Chappie because he is a “happy chappie.” He goes from a skittering fearful puppy to a child-level intellect, all housed in the body of an invincible, super-powerful police enforcer. Despite the chaotic nonsense that surrounds this character, the heart of the film is in this robot, and his ingenuous dialogue is carefully written to dance its way through the stages of human development. From blind trust for his parental figures to teenage rebellion and an eventual existential crisis, our robotic lead goes through a wide swath of emotional development. (In the last case Chappie can demand directly of his maker a question so many humans have been unable to articulate, asking Deon, “Why did you make me so I would die?”) The character of Chappie is so complex and well developed that a scene in which his modular, replaceable robotic body is mutilated is more skin-crawlingly effective than any of the numerous scenes of senseless violence committed against more fragile human bodies.
Chappie’s baby talk—delivered in a South African drawl by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley—has been accused of being Jar Jar Binks-like minstrelsy, but that is far from the truth. Far from a racial caricature, Chappie comes across as a childlike figure voiced by a South African—any similarities lie in the critic’s impressions of non-American accents as uniformly “other.” As the action plot accelerates and antagonist Vincent makes a move to try to get the police force to adopt his inferior robot design—one that resembles a modern take on Robocop’s villain, Enforcement Droid 309—the plot becomes more convoluted and silly, but at the same time Blomkamp’s deliberate fanboy homage to Verhoeven’s masterpiece becomes even more apparent. (There is even an echo of the scene in which Robocop throws a villain through a plate glass window while reading his Miranda rights.)
What is most disappointing about Chappie isn’t anything to do with the film itself, but more the world it reflects—one in which we see weaponized robots as an eventuality of police forces. The general pipeline for technological advancement, of military to police to general public, seems poised to hand off predator drones to the same police departments who are currently abusing their officer-handled weapons. Why any robotic police officer, be it a predator drone or a scout, would need the ability to use lethal force is beyond understanding. The tired police statement (used in brutality charges from Darren Wilson to the perpetrators who beat Rodney King) has always been that the officer “feared for his life.” Until our robots are as human as Chappie, there should be no reason to arm them with the ability to kill, but every mainstream film—from this one to the remake of Robocop or Captain America: The Winter Soldier—seems ready to sign onto a militarized robotic army to keep our streets “safe.”