A film review by Craig J. Koban March 13, 2015

CHAPPIE jjj
 

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.  

It’s the 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 outings. 

Blomkamp 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. 

 

 

CHAPPIE 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. 

Another 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. 

Chappie 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. 

CHAPPIE 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 whole. 

Ultimately, 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.  

Any.  Day. 

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