Action/Sci-Fi, 120 Minutes, 2015
I start off my month of A.I. with one of the movies I was most looking forward to. Neill Blomkamp [IMDB] , despite having a name that sounds like an expensive sex act, has brought us some of the best, most thought provoking science fiction of the past decade. That said, he’s not the most subtle, or even the most original, writer. District 9 [IMDB] was an incisive, if blunt, commentary on the inherent disaster of institutionalized inequality. Elysium’s [IMDB] Haves-versus-Have-Nots theme was even less elegant, but effectively timeless regardless.
All of his films wrap themselves in visually sumptuous sci-fi trappings. All of them juxtapose high technology and scientific advancement against stark backgrounds of filth and poverty. All of them feature regular joes forced into impossible situations. All of them end pretty damn weird.
In “Chappie” Deon (Dev Patel [IMDB]) is an engineer for a hugely successful robotics company that builds autonomous police drones. He’s desperate to prove his theories on artificial intelligence. Vincent (Hugh Jackman [IMDB] playing hard against type) is a competing engineer who’s attempting to sell the company on his mobile weapons platform. Michelle (Sigourney Weaver [IMDB]) is their boss who inexplicably ignores both of their hugely profitable, immediately applicable ideas in favor of doing… nothing.
Deon steals a broken drone and the one-of-a-kind security key needed to install software on it, uploads his software and Chappie is born. He’s an “infant”, ready to learn about the world around him, and is almost immediately stolen by a gang of thugs that want to use him as muscle in a robbery. To do that, or anything, really, Chappie must “grow up”. As he does, he pieces together a working moral framework from his creator’s lofty hopes and the lies and mixed messages of his captors.
Blomkamp attempts to layer several themes across one another, but primarily the story examines nature versus nurture.. The interaction between Deon’s Superego and the criminal’s Id to create Chappie’s Ego. Will Chappie, ultimately, do the right thing? What, in fact, is the right thing? Upholding the law? Loyalty to your family? As the story progresses, the questions about the nature of sentience and the true nature of mind are broached.
Unfortunately, the movie asks a lot of its audience; perhaps too much. The characters lack any real depth, yet they still manage to act wildly outside their simple parameters. The thugs kidnap Deon, steal his prized robot and… let him go. Deon, upon his release, does… nothing. The thugs drive Chappie, their prize, into a bad neighborhood and drop him off to be beaten, abused and almost destroyed “to teach him a lesson”. Vincent, for his part, just goes pants-crapping crazy.
It’s incredibly difficult for the audience to build empathy with the characters when they act so randomly, but Chappie himself still manages to pluck at the heartstrings. He does so in a completely predictable way, of course, but an effective one nonetheless. As he grows, there’s a meaningful desire to see him do well and make the right choices.
No complaints can be made regarding the effects. Blomkamp has an amazing eye for visuals and uses it well here. Chappie is fluid, expressive and well grounded in the environment. He has a wonderful subtlety that clashes harshly with the bombastic, overwrought action of the last act.
Chappie is good story. One that you’ve seen before (probably several times), but a good story all the same. Sadly, it’s crippled by poor character development, nonsensical motivations and a ridiculously heavy-handed ending. Generous fans of the genre may want to give it a shot, but others will likely find it too rough a ride.