(2014) Science Fiction (Columbia) Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Ninja, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Johnny Selema, Anderson Cooper, Maurice Carpede, Jason Cope, Kevin Otto, Chris Shields, Bill Marchant, Robert Hobbs, Mark K. Xulu, Sheridon Marema, Shaheed Hajee, Arran Henn. Directed by Neil Blomkamp
Law enforcement is by definition a dangerous job. Police officers are killed in the line of duty all over the world more often than we would all like. Some feel that militarizing the police will protect better those who protect and serve. Using advanced military robotics may well be the solution, they might think.
Johannesburg, South Africa, has gone one step forward in that direction. Rather than put tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets with gangs armed with rocket launchers and other advanced weaponry, they have put mechanized robots. However, these robots are often used with police officers, since a computer can’t tell right from wrong. However, the programmer for the robot cops, a fellow named Deon Wilson (Patel).
Deon has a whole other idea in mind. He’s developed a program that would give the Scout robots artificial intelligence; the ability to learn, grow, expand and make moral judgments that they couldn’t possibly make in the field. What he doesn’t know is that Michelle Bradley (Weaver), the head of the company he works for, is deathly afraid of even the concept of A.I., knowing that it could mean the end of the human race.
More practical is Vincent Moore (Jackman), an ex-military man whose creation, a clunky AT-AT looking thing whose design was rejected by Bradley, has more practical reasons for being pissed at Deon – he wants his Scout project to fail. He wants it to fail miserably and then let his own devices come save the day. Everyone in the building knows that Moore is a piss-poor engineer but everyone is a little afraid of him because Moore is a little psycho.
After a Scout is badly damaged in the field it is assigned to get scrapped. Seeing an opportunity to see if he can make his creation work, Deon decides to bring home the spare parts to build a robot of his own and see if he can make the A.I. work. Instead, he’s intercepted by a gang led by Ninja and Yo-Landi (Ninja and Vi$$er, respectively) who want him to give them a means of turning off the Scouts so that they can undertake a grand heist that will in turn give them the cash to pay off Pitbull (Selema), a psychotic gang leader who they owe money to.
Instead of an off switch, they get Chappie (Copley), the robot with the A.I. Child-like and frightened, Chappie learns at an astonishing rate. Ninja wants to turn Chappie into an accomplice in the heist while Yo-Landi is more of a nurturing sort. Despite Deon’s best efforts to keep Chappie in the straight and narrow, Ninja and his mate Yankee (Cantillo) are turning on Chappie to the delights of Thug Life and Gangsta Rap.
But Chappie is developing a moral compass of his own and is torn between Ninja and Yo-Landi, whom he address as Daddy and Mommy, and Deon, his creator. What will Chappie become, and what will happen when he gets there?
Blomkamp is the South African director behind District 9 and Elysium. Both are dystopian sci-fi films that are not only well-made entertainment but thought-provoking as well. This is the latest in that particular trend, although quite frankly it’s not as successful as the first two.
Artificial Intelligence is a subject that is moving well out of the province of science fiction and into the realm of science. It’s something we’re getting closer to. The nominal villain of this film, Moore, opines that artificial intelligence is unpredictable and could decide at a moment’s notice that the easiest way to protect the world was to get rid of the human population. He does have a point.
But then again, Chappie is literally a child whose moral development is being overseen by thugs. I can imagine that would raise some red flags, although the Yo-Landi character is a bit more maternal and less harsh than her male counterpart.
Patel who rose to fame with Slumdog Millionaire has become an engaging, charismatic actor who is able to ensnare audience sympathies with just a smile. He has as expressive a face as anyone in the business and he uses it to good purpose here. Jackman for his part rarely plays the villain and while his point of view here at least is relatable, the character’s jealousy and bullying tactics make the character hissable. I hate to say it but Jackman is far too ingrained in the public consciousness as a hero to make as an effective villain as you might like. Weaver is simply one of the most compelling actresses of our time.
Copley supplies the motion capture for Chappie as well as his voice; he does a pretty serviceable job, particularly delivering some much-needed moments of pathos near the end of the film. Copley is no Andy Serkis (but then again, who is?) but he does make Chappie feel like an actual flesh and blood…er, nuts and bolts robot.
Where the movie falls down is in the casting of Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er. They are both highly regarded rappers in South Africa and they have the look of the criminal gang down, but quite frankly they’re both horrible actors. Ninja is stiff and delivers his lines in kind of a colorless gruff voice that gives me the impression that he didn’t really want to be there while Yo-Landi’s child-like voice is so distracting that some of her dialogue simply becomes unlistenable. One wonders if the characters carried the same name as the rappers because Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with his wife, didn’t trust them to react to different character names while the cameras were running.
Blomkamp makes some tactical errors along the way besides the casting. The dialogue is often cheesy and doesn’t sound like real people talking. The abandoned industrial sites that are the hideouts for Pitbull’s gang as well as Ninja’s are indistinguishable from one another, while having Pitbull brandishing a solid gold machine gun may look gangsta but is impractical to say the least and ludicrous to be more accurate. There’s a lot more I could go into but it would be like kicking a dog while it’s down.
The movie has been fairly negatively received both by critics and at the box office and I can genuinely say that both critics and audience have it right. It isn’t to say that Chappie is without any merit whatsoever and should be avoided like a root canal on a healthy tooth – there is entertainment value here, it’s just that if you go in expecting something along the lines of District 9 you are going to leave disappointed. Blomkamp clearly is a talented director and has some major high profile projects lined up for the near future. Hopefully he’ll do a better job with them than he did with this.
REASONS TO GO: Some genuine moments of pathos. Dev Patel is engaging and Hugh Jackman makes for a decent villain.
REASONS TO STAY: Rappers are TERRIBLE actors. Missteps throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A lot of violence, even more foul language and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappie’s rabbit ear antennae are a nod to the similar look of Briareos in the manga Appleseed of which Blomkamp is a fan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bicentennial Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wrecking Crew