Johnny 5 alive! Well he doesn’t exactly remind you of the robot from Short Circuit, the gangster Johannesburg accent is a noticeable difference, but the childlike wonder and discovery is very similar. He goes by Chappie in this movie. Neill Blomkamp likes to tackle social themes in very unique settings. In District 9 he covered prejudice and discrimination as an extraterrestrial race becomes trapped and later quarantined in South Africa. In Elysium he tackles a class system where the working poor struggle to make ends meet while the filthy rich orbit the Earth on a ring of paradise. In Blomkamp’s third directorial project, he brings to life a robot that thinks and feels. He also decides to frame this innocent character in a storybook fantasy of South African gang war. Which is silly at first glance, and even sillier if you over-analyze the plot holes, but if you look at this film as a fairytale it will be a fun ride.
In Chappie, directed by Neill Blomkamp, Johannesburg has been equipped with a state-of-the-art robot police force that is capable of subduing crime activity without the loss of innocent, human life. The robots are designed by Deon Wilson(Dev Patel), who is the cornerstone genius of the Tetravaal company headed by CEO Michelle Bradley(Sigourney Weaver). You would think since Deon pretty much gave Tetravaal an invention that will yield billions of dollars for them he could get a nice office of his own to work in. Instead they have him sitting at a cubicle with everybody else, including his rival-of-sorts Vincent Moore(Hugh Jackman). Vincent has designed a much tougher robot named Moose, similar to the ED-209 machine from Robocop, and is attempting to convince the city to purchase his work. Since Deon’s robots are so successful, there is no need for Moose. Vincent devises a plan to make his robot more desirable and it involves getting rid of the competition.
Meanwhile Deon invents a program for artificial intelligence and sets out to test it on one of his robots. Since he’s a terrible salesman, and the robots are already making money as law enforcement sentinels, Michelle Bradley refuses him permission to use the company’s robots for his experiment. So he does what any inspired engineer would do and steals one. Little does he know that a gang of criminals has decided to kidnap him so they can control the robots themselves. Instead they discover his stolen robot and persuade Deon to put it back together so it can work for them. He agrees and thus Chappie is born.
Much of the movie is Chappie learning lessons of how to be gangster. His maker Deon taught him not to hurt people; but since he doesn’t yet know pain or death, his gangster parents give him skewed lessons on right and wrong. They have him steal cars and teach him to shoot and throw ninja stars. His gangster dad is named Ninja and is more concerned with him learning how to fight and take down cops so they can steal money. His gangster mom Yolandi is more encouraging of his curious nature and allows him to pick up new interests like painting and reading. All these lessons give him the personality of a badass simpleton who cares about other people. His real test comes when he fully realizes the dark nature of humans.
The story moves along sluggishly and even glosses over plot points that should have been addressed more delicately, such as Chappie’s learning curve. He goes from playing with a rubber chicken to developing a machine that can download your consciousness in just a few days without any explanation other than a passing comment that he learns fast. Also the security at Tetravaal is hilariously inadequate, but if there were actual fail-safe measures to prevent the removal of property such as weapons and equipment from the premises we wouldn’t have a story. Still at the heart of this plot is a child in a robot’s body trying to figure out how the world works and where he belongs in that world. The irony is that Chappie has more layers of humanity and development than his human associates in this film. He grows over time and begins to understand context and display deep emotions. The other characters not so much. Hugh Jackman pretty much becomes so conniving as the movie goes on that you feel as though you are watching a cartoon villain. Even Sigourney Weaver doesn’t have much depth to give you other than agreeing to or refusing a request.
I enjoyed Chappie for its theme of what being human really means and wrapping it around a tale about gangster life, albeit haphazardly. There were so many conversations this movie should have had concerning the use of robots and artificial intelligence, but Blomkamp decided to stretch out Chappie’s development throughout most of the film and finish off the movie with a decent spectacle to please our eyes. I cannot praise the visual effects enough because they are some of the best I’ve seen, but the story needed to be tighter and more interesting. Chappie is a silly version of Short Circuit and Robocop mashed together with shades of District 9, but it does have its own personality and a promising lead in to a sequel if the studio decides to do one. A tale about a gangster robot in South Africa certainly has promising avenues to explore.
Synopsis: In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Anderson Cooper
Runtime: 120 Minutes
March 6th, 2015