Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel
Chappie is the third film by South African director Neill Blomkamp after the superb District 9 and the uninspiring Elysium. It also happens to be my third robot movie cinema trip of 2015 (after January’s Ex Machina and February’s Big Hero 6) and by the far the one I was looking forward to the most. I’d been really excited about Chappie since I first heard it was being produced, and – especially – since I saw initial designs for its expressively bunny-eared mechanical protagonist. But it was with some trepidation that I settled myself in front of the big screen as the picture seems to be garnering an awful lot of negative reviews and few things make me madder or sadder than squandered opportunities to make a decent robot flick.
So, how much does Chappie resemble the sticker on its eponymous hero’s head?
One of the movie’s refrains is the desire of his creator for Chappie to be himself, necessarily shaped and influenced by his world (a grimly dystopian one) and by the people around him, but ultimately free to be unique. Basically a robotic child, Chappie soaks up stimuli without always knowing what he wants or how to respond. And in this respect the film as a whole does mirrors its protagonist. Blomkamp’s influences are never hidden: with Short Circuit and Robocop being the most obvious cinematic touchstones. The film evokes these, as well as a lot of intriguing ideas about human prejudice, artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness but it doesn’t always seem to have a clear agenda or sense of what to do with these multiple threads, and I can see how this would frustrate many critics.
Yet even if it can feel muddled, Chappie, like its protagonist, should not be rejected but embraced as very much its own thing. And that thing just happens to be a violent, bubblegum sci-fi robot fairytale. Now that’s not a genre I even realised I needed in my life but now we’ve got it, I’m so glad it’s here. This film is not without its flaws but it still triumphantly pulled at my heart strings and sent my pulse racing.
Dev Patel plays Deon, a whizkid roboticist whose designs for the Scouts, a fully autonomous robotic policeforce, have had a huge impact in reclaiming the crime-ridden streets of near-future Johannesberg. Deon’s rival at his workplace, Tetravaal, is Vincent Moore, played by Hugh Jackman -who seems to be enjoying himself playing against type as the bloodthirsty and fervently religious AI-hating villain. I was going to try to get through the whole review without mentioning Jackman’s mullet but I just can’t do it. He has a mullet, it’s quite an eyeful. Vincent has designed his own human-controlled police bot, the clunky and overpowered Moose, and he chafes at the lack of support for his project in the light of the Scouts’ success. Deon is also dealing with rejection. He has designed a programme to make the Scouts truly sentient, giving them the ability to think and learn, but is forbidden from testing it. Inevitably he goes ahead anyway, rescuing the condemned Scout 22 to be his guinea pig. Yet things go awry when Deon is kidnapped by gangsters. Ninja and Yo-landi (the rap-rave group Die Antwoord, playing loosely fictionalised versions of themselves) are hoping that Deon will give them the power to switch off the police bots, facilitating the major heist they need to accomplish in order to pay off their considerable debts. Instead they witness the birth of Chappie and become instrumental in the robot’s development, for better and for worse.
An interesting (brave?) casting choice, the inclusion of Die Antwoord was one of the elements I was most concerned about prior to viewing the film. Ninja and Yo-landi do not make cameos here, their role is huge. But they are not professional actors. During their first appearance I really feared that their shouty over-done performances would be an unwelcome distraction. It takes a while to settle into the offbeat logic of the film’s world but after a few scenes I actually came to enjoy the quirky style they bring to the film. Ninja’s character is thoroughly unlikable (though he is allowed a partial redemption) but Yo-landi is truly compelling and ends up stealing many of the scenes she’s in. I loved how Chappie’s arrival kindles so many unexpected maternal feelings in her. The scene where she reads to him in bed is incredibly sweet and touching, all the more so for how incongruous this tender moment appears in her world of crime, drugs and violence.
So much is wrong and odd in the gangsters’ world. In many ways the childlike robot is strangest thing of all, yet conversely Chappie’s presence does much to normalise Ninja and Yo-landi. Even if their aspirations for him are somewhat south of legal, in the way they quickly fall to arguing over how to bring him up they are – suddenly – just like any other set of parents. The film is at its best when playing in this way as a darkly humorous take on a typical coming of age / origin story. The training montage in which Chappie learns to carjack is superbly done – at once hilarious and horrifying.
The film’s tagline, “Humanity’s last hope isn’t human” is somewhat misleading since it implies a global scale that is not apparent in this film. Of course the creation of a true, independent AI has society-wide implications, but the film doesn’t really explore this. Blomkamp’s attention is focused much more closely on one troubled city and a small group of individuals within it for whom Chappie’s presence does indeed change everything. I found this narrowness to be a strength. Too many movies feel the need to raise the stakes as high as possible, but, rather than always saving the world, it can be much more interesting to examine the place of a few characters within it. The film inevitably builds towards a final high octane fight scene. Yet while it’s huge on violence, impact and adrenalin, even this feels narrow in focus. Vincent doesn’t want to take over the world, or even the city, he just wants to take out the one man he hates, there just happens to be an awful lot of collateral damage.
What the tagline gets right is the sense of desolation. Humanity does need saving here, but only from ourselves. What I really liked about Chappie was the way it inverts the usual, tired old ‘robots rise up and take over’ trope. These fears may inform Vincent’s hatred of AI (though mostly he just seems mad and religious) but the film gives them no credence. It’s robot positive: humans are the real problem here. And a human controlled robot is much more dangerous simply because there is a person in there making the decisions (and this film really emphasises how humans make a hell of a lot of very poor and illogical decisions). Chappie is an innocent and if he goes bad it is not because he is inherently immoral but because his treatment at human hands has pushed him that way.
That sounds bleak, and I guess it is but the film is far from sombre. In South Africa “Chappie” is a well-established brand of gum (perhaps this is the make that Yo-landi appears to be chewing throughout) and while this film is gritty it is also bubblegummy, a hybrid tone that is perfectly embodied the first time Die Antwoord appear touting their candy-coloured firearms. From Chappie’s bunny ears, to the He-Man references and “just be who you are” motto, there are so many things in this film that would be almost be pure Disney if it weren’t for all the violence and swearing. Chappie is a dystopian robot fairytale and ultimately I think how much you enjoy it will come down to how you respond its tonal mix of cute and caustic. For me, it worked. I won’t spoil the ending here, but suffice to say it surprised and pleased me, though it does require the suspension of disbelief in a way that probably would be difficult for viewers who are not by that point fully immersed in the darkly quirky world Blomkamp has created.
Chappie hasn’t had a universally positive reception at the box office but I sincerely hope the film will be successful overall. I can imagine it becoming a slow-burning cult classic over time and it deserves to be. The main reason to see it is of course for Chappie himself, who is instantly endearing thanks to a fantastic motion-capture performance from Blomkamp favorite Sharlto Copley coupled with a great robot design and some very high quality CGI. He will definitely join the annals of robots to remember.
My final observation is strictly for my fellow Choice of Games enthusiasts but, with its emphasis on AI being what we make it, there were so many times when Chappie could almost have been Choice of Robots the Movie. Like that addictive game Chappie is an experience that engages the heart, head and trigger-finger, in that order, and this is a very welcome thing.