Language: English | Running Time: 120 Minutes | Director: Neill Blomkamp
There’s a very dystopian look looming over Johannesburg. When you realise this is a Neill Blomkamp film, it doesn’t surprise because his career has been developed building tales with rubble and despair taking over humanity. “Chappie”, his third feature film, is about the story of a robot who is artificially intelligent, becomes “conscious” and the resulting chaos and learning from the scenario.
The script, developed with his wife –Terri Tatchell, starts off promisingly. The South African government has commissioned robots into policing in order to protect human police officers and bring a state of order. In a series of news flashes and congratulatory messages we are shown the new faces of law enactment in Johannesburg. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), an engineer at Tetravaal, a corporation dedicated to developing weapons, headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) has developed Scouts, robot cops. He has also developed, after 945 days of binging on Red Bull – an artificial intelligence program. A decommissioned Scout is transformed into Chappie (Sharlto Copley), an intelligent, conscious robot.
For the genre to move forward, we find Chappie being “kidnapped” by a trio of the most laughable criminals the movies have given us played by Die Antwoord rappers Yolandi Visser, Ninja and Jose Pablo Cantillo as Yankie, a Hisapnic presence added to cover all bases. They need to steal money to save their sorry selves and they think it’d be great to have a police robot protecting them from 99 other Scouts in the city. These are “gangsta cool thug life here bro” thieves who make Chappie into a sing-song hustle, gold chain wearing joke of a robot. This is where the movie’s first problems arise. Unless you are looking for a strange pet, a combination of futuristic version of Tin Man from “Wizard Of Oz”, a lesser and full machine RoboCop with the qualities of a loyal dog, there isn’t anything likable about Chappie, the robot. The humans, are more or less equally laughable and also more irritating.
To make things worse, there is a pithy angle of a sinister and unscrupulous ex-military engineer, Vincent Moore (an unbearable Hugh Jackman) who competes with Deon Wilson, tries to sabotage his product and carries a pistol around in the office without being questioned or feared. Yolandi becomes a mother figure to Chappie, Ninja is a tattooed gangster who pops in and out without making us feel anything towards him. Deon is a stereotypical engineer who has made a big breakthrough but doesn’t know how to handle the evolving situation.
Neill Blomkamp creates an interesting world of degradation. He did an ever better job designing a world in “Elysium”. But when it comes to populating his world with characters who can feel, emote and makes us invest in them, he seems to lose his way and gives us these straight cue sign holding characters who can’t be taken seriously. It isn’t that there aren’t emotional moments but there is a lack of sincerity in the relation to the characters and movement of story that it becomes lukewarm and too little to remember. There is an excellent scene where we see Yo-Landi read the story of a black sheep to Chappie and he asks her if he is a black sheep himself. There is another where we find him learning to move his body watching He-Man : Masters of the Universe. These are interesting outtakes in a movie which doesn’t know how to use them.
The problem also lies that the performances from the actors playing the human roles is one of dismayed wonder, subdued insanity and bubble gum gun toting middle aged expressionless. At the end of the film, you realise that there hasn’t been a liberation of characters from their trappings. When Deon’s consciousness is transferred or Chappie is reinstated, the absurdness of the proceedings take center stage more than the humanity that the act depicted. In some ways, the whole transferring consciousness across bodies is itself a demystification of humanity. The demystification of what makes us who we are would have been achieved if we had spent time understanding it, rather than looking at unimaginative one dimensional acts. If only everything was as instantly transferable, our lives would indeed be easier. Maybe all of us could look like Brad Pitt some day, all titanium look alikes carrying individual consciousness.
More than anything, it is an air of disappointment that hangs around Neill Blomkamp’s third feature. He doesn’t ask questions about artificial intelligence, about humanity, the facilitation of a police state to control crime, the sensitivity of human conditioning. It is like sitting in a bullet train and traveling to the next station. A series of images fly by us with hardly enough time or distance between them to captivate our imagination and thinking capacity. “Chappie” is a bore, a big chunk of waste of an interesting premise which neither has good acting nor film-making. I hope Blomkamp finds his way back as the filmmaker who made the exciting “District 9” because if “Chappie” is any indication, he has reached all kinds of lows.