Strangely, whenever a good science fiction film delves into the subject of robots or artificial intelligence, the synthetic being is invariably the most compelling and human character on the screen. There is probably something to say about how the complexity of a directly artificial creature brings out the best in those who live to create visual artifice. Thus, without ever missing a beat, whenever Sharlto Copley’s Chappie is the star of his own film, Chappie is nothing short of captivating. It’s just the other half of the film with the “human” characters where Neill Blomkamp runs into familiar problems.
As Blomkamp’s third feature film, I will say that he has done a solid job of course correction from 2013’s disappointing Elysium. While Chappie is still not in the realm of what his debut showcased in District 9, this robot feature, which returns to his South African hometown of Johannesburg, is a thoroughly unique sci-fi confection that should leave genre enthusiasts satisfied, most especially because the rabbit-eared electronic hero. However, the inclusion of fellow international South African stars, Die Antwoord, makes for a tonal imbalance that prevents Chappie from reaching its humanist full potential in more than one way.
Set in a futuristic Johannesburg that may as well be only a few years down the line from when District 9’s “Prawns” caught the big ship home, Chappie tells of a cybernetic police state that seems only a few miles removed from Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop version of Detroit. But unlike that 1987 film’s OmniCorp, South Africa’s corporate leadership has ironed out the kinks of a fully-fledged robotic police force that has cleaned up the streets. In fact they’ve done it a little too well for Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), the designer of the defunct military drone-on-steroids “the Moose” (again: think RoboCop’s ED-209). But for the designer of the more humanoid robots bringing about law and order, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), it’s all great news. What is even better is that this introverted genius has created what will possibly be his first friend: a new artificial intelligence.
But before Deon can give a proper test to the AI, which he has connected to a severely damaged police drone, he just so happens to be kidnapped by street thugs Ninja and Yolandi (Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi), plus tag-along Amerika (Jose Pablo-Cantillo). They want Deon to turn off all the police drones he built, and when they realize that he cannot do that, they force him to turn over his infantile AI robot.
Deon intends for this new creation, which can learn hundreds of times faster than the human brain, to be an artist or poet. Ninja and Amerika simply want to train him to be “gangster,” as well as be the fourth man for their upcoming heists. What emerges is a battle of conflicting parental influences: the aspirations of Deon, and the impoverished limitations of Ninja. Yolandi, who names the AI “Chappie,” falls somewhere in the middle between these two fathers.
The greatest strength of Chappie is this battle of parenting, which in a not-so-subtle way raises issues about class and opportunity that Blomkamp thoroughly explores. Neither Deon, Ninja, or Yolandi really understand how much of their personalities Chappie is soaking up, and it’s like parenthood in the express lane that they see their values reflected in this very divided child of education and poverty. But most of this success comes entirely from Copley’s performance, which even under the practical (and likely some digital) prosthetics, is a tour de force of body language and vocal attunements. The actual mechanics of Chappie also add a great deal to the puppy dog effect of his childlike naivete, right down to his long ears that go back when scared of a rolled up newspaper (which in Ninja’s world looks more like a lead pipe).
It is in this less flashy subplot that Chappie earns its science fiction bonafides for depicting AI with the unspoken acceptance of legitimacy. There are no mentions of souls, nor is there a Turing Test akin to Blade Runner. Chappie is more likely to sing to please his mommy than to creep out the audience with a rendition of “Daisy.” This refreshing vantage on the AI trope makes the film thoroughly original for a widely released science fiction film.
However, it’s the other tropes that are less unique where the picture missteps to varying degrees. Jackman as the villainous Vincent is perfectly believable as a former military engineer with a sadistic streak hidden behind his overeager smile. But his inclusion in the story of Chappie seems like a mandatory diversion from the main plot so that there can be some excessive violence and a black hat in the film’s third act (which is blessedly more measured than the sensory overloads in Elysium).
Similarly, Sigourney Weaver’s presence as Deon and Vincent’s corporate overseer, Michelle Bradley, is welcome if fairly underdeveloped. This is a woman whose job is to build robots, and who then dismisses the concept of artificial intelligence as wonky nerd-talk instead of the next obvious step for her company. Indeed, her presence seems to coalesce around the idea that she is simply Sigourney Weaver.
Still, she is a more authentic presence than Die Antwoord in this film. As someone who has listened to the bombastic “Fatty Boom Boom” more times than he would care to admit, and still smiles at “Enter the Ninja,” it’s fair to say that both Ninja and Yolandi are not naturally gifted actors. Between the two, Yolandi is probably the better thespian by a hair, but when it comes to delivering exposition, neither are going to appear as sharp as their throwing stars, even if they add an amusingly bizarre imprint on both Chappie and the overall tone.
They are counterbalanced by a genuine and sympathetic presence by Patel, but the contrast of their performances not only with the silver spooned Deon but also with Copley in a robot suit makes for an even more jarring contrast. At certain points, both serve their characters well, but neither really become them, in spite of identical names.
There is plenty to enjoy about Chappie that can be found in just the simple gestures of the titular robot. He develops a personality that surprises and confounds all three of his caregivers, and similarly he will also endear almost any audience member who goes into this latest Blomkamp feature with an open mind. So on that level, Chappie exceeds his parents’ dreams, if not maybe all of yours.