2015, R, 121 mins.
2015, R, 121 mins.
Sharlto Copley as Chappie / Dev Patel as Deon / Brandon Auret as Hippo / Eugene Khumbanyiwa as King / Yolandi Visser as Yolandi / Ninja as Ninja / Sigourney Weaver as Michelle Bradley / Hugh Jackman as Vincent
Directed by Neill Blomkamp / Written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
CHAPPIE is a new science fiction film that – like good examples of the genre - poses many fascinating philosophical questions about its premise (in its case, artificial robotic intelligence) and how it relates to the human condition.
third film from South Africa filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, whom previously
made the game changing Oscar nominated DISTRICT
9 and the criminally underrated ELYSIUM.
Those two films were thoughtful allegories about the nature of
apartheid and the importance of universal health care respectively.
Both also married cutting edge visual effects, propulsive action
sequences, and politically charged storytelling, which helped elevate the
films far above the recent crop of witless and action-heavy sci-fi
tries to recreate the success he attained with his last two pictures in
CHAPPIE, which also showcases him attempting to infuse compelling thematic
material with the typical accoutrements of the sci-fi genre.
There are many grand ideas at the core of this film that should spawn
endless debate, like the ethically quandaries that artificial intelligence
posses, not to mention the moral role that human beings have in teaching
newly mechanical sentient beings how to learn and live.
Blomkamp always seems driven to say meaningful things in his films,
but for as noble minded and well intentioned as CHAPPIE is, the film lacks
an overall payoff. Blomkamp
seems more distracted with an action-packed and ultra violent final
act than he is with provocatively exploring his underlining story.
That’s not to say that CHAPPIE isn’t a consummately made film.
The director utilizes flawless visual effects with stunning
location shooting as well as anything he has done before; the film
simply looks sensational. Nonetheless,
CHAPPIE struggles in terms of answering the endlessly intriguing
questions it poses. In that
respect, it falls a bit short.
is a bit of a spiritual sequel to DISTRICT 9 in the sense that both films
begin with faux-news reports and documentary footage and both take place
in Johannesburg, South Africa. CHAPPIE’s near future concerns the city’s police force
largely being replaced by heavily armored, nearly indestructible, and
law-abiding robots that have lead to a steep downward curb in crime. The company responsible for the production and creation of these
robots – Tera Vaal, headed by CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) –
couldn’t be happier with the financial windfall of their success.
One employee, though, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) desperately
wants to make his larger, bulkier, and more lethal robots (dubbed “The
Moose”) to be the next phase in the company’s mechanized police force,
but Michelle shoots down his concepts as quickly as he can pose them.
Tera Vaal employee has loftier ambitions.
Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the original inventor of the widely used
police scouts, but he wants to explore the possibilities of expanding the
already limited AI that they possess.
He’s developed a crack program that will give the robots an
artificial brain that can learn, reason, and feel like a human being.
When one random robot is to be sent to the scrap yard, Deon
intercepts it and takes it away in hopes of secretly installing his
revolutionary software into it, without his boss’ approval and consent.
Before he can do this, though, both he and the robot are
intercepted by some criminals, Ninja and Yolandi (played by…uh…Ninja
and Yolandi Visser, two members of the South African hip-hop group Die
Antwoord) that wish to use it for their own nefarious purposes.
While captured, Deon does convince the thugs to allow him to test
out his new AI in the comatose robot, which they allow. After
completion, the robot does wake up, but with the mind and soul of an
infant that needs to be taught...everything.
Of course, Deon wants to guide his new creation – dubbed
“Chappie” by one of the goons – down the right path, whereas Ninja
and Yolandi want to educate it on how to be a gangbanger.
Complications ensue when Vincent discovers what Deon has done and
conspires a plan to derail his robotic project altogether.
is an endearingly odd character, to say the least.
He is the product of Sharlto Copley’s voice and performance
capture work (he previously appeared in Blomkamp’s last two films) and
the actor manages to evoke an artificial being that’s given a second
change in life, so to speak, but first must learn how to properly live it.
Copley’s performance relays Chappie's childlike naiveté about
the world around him with an insatiable level of overt curiosity about
everything he becomes exposed to. The
best scenes in the film highlight the crooks trying to mould Chappie as
the ultimate gangster badass, which is clearly counterintuitive to the
more peace loving and moralistic code that his creator in Deon tries to
impart in it. As with his previous films, Blomkamp employs virtuoso visual
effects to bring Chappie to life, which is complemented by Copley’s
thankless performance of trying to show a mechanical being trying to
develop some semblance of soul in a soulless and cruel world.
has some decent supporting work as well, especially from Patel, a fine
young actor that’s well cast here as the in-over-his-head robotics
engineer. I also admired the
off-kiltered casting of Hugh Jackman as the film’s mulleted and hostile
minded baddie (even though his character is a bit one-note and
underdeveloped, it’s ultimately refreshing to see the actor sink his
teeth into an all-out villain role with enthusiastic relish). Much negative attention has been made towards Ninja and
Yolandi Visser’s casting in the film, but they seem to acclimatize
themselves here rather adequately (I had no idea going into the screening
that they were South African rappers).
Sigourney Weaver brings some gravitas to the film, but her CEO
character is ill defined and perhaps underused throughout the story,
especially considering her relative stature in the sci-fi genre as a
one of the weakest areas of CHAPPIE is, again, in its exploration of its core ideas. There have
been many past films that have tackled the nature of AI and Blomkamp
seems interested in spinning a fresh take on old material.
Alas, his ambition seems out of his actual grasp as the film winds
down towards a conclusion that doesn’t particularly say anything
thoroughly persuasive or novel about the nature of consciousness, human
and non-human alike. Chappie
himself – a marvelously realized creation – ultimately seems to be a
victim of the story’s inability to investigate and ponder his unique
place in the world to the fullest satisfying extent.
Just when CHAPPIE seems like it's about to finally amount to
something monumental, Blomkamp retreats back to obligatory
sci-fi action film staples of an ultra-bloody action-heavy climax that,
while sensationally realized and staged, does a disservice to the overall
narrative and themes. There’s
also a rather tacked-on concept of literally downloading/transferring a
consciousness – involving both humans and robots – that involves heavily
in the third act that feels like it was made up as Blomkamp went along.
Still, I admired so much in CHAPPIE despite its rather unsatisfying conclusion and the rough and ragged edges it has with its thematic material. Blomkamp is incapable of making a bad looking film (he knows how to make a lawless futuristic Johannesburg appear grittily immersive and lived-in) and the film’s splendid effects – on a relative cheap $50 million budget – are Oscar caliber. Hans Zimmer also provides a brilliantly conceived electronic infused score that compliments the film’s overt weirdness. Yes, CHAPPIE is not as thoughtful as I wanted it to be, but at least Blomkamp has the willingness to tackle fundamental ideas and questions about the nature of sentience and how it relates to the human condition and the never-ending nature versus nurture conundrum, albeit with inconsistent levels of success. CHAPPIE is easily the least of Blomkamp’s three films, but that’s not to say it’s a downright failure as many other critics have labored to emphasize. I’ll still take an ambitious minded – but imperfect and problematic – film from Blomkamp any day over the nauseatingly empty minded aesthetic of a Michael Bay.