With DISTRICT 9, writer-director Neil Blomkamp presented us with a compelling look at the near future in the wake of a visitation by non-threatening aliens that was so far afield from science fiction works at the time that it felt revolutionary. By setting it in Blomkamp's native South African city of Johannesburg and making the clear parallels between the segregation policies of not so long ago, the film also became genuinely compelling. His 2013 ELYSIUM pushed even deeper into the way humans separate ourselves from each other, this time based on class. The poor stay on the dying planet Earth and the rest get to float above its surface in a clean, safe, man-made space station. A gripping idea for our times, but Blomkamp tends to write his screenplays with a hammer, so any hopes of subtlety were thrown right out the window in favor of a more anarchic message.
This approach seems replicated in his latest film, CHAPPPIE, in which Blomkamp returns with his DISTRICT 9 co-screenwriter Terri Tachell to the city of Johannesburg. And like DISTRICT 9, he even opens the film with news footage explaining a problem that is taking over the city and how it's being dealt with, so everything is explained to us like a parent reading a child a bedtime story. Crime is becoming a massive issue in the city and the government is turning to a mechanized police force to deal with it. The police droids seem to be getting the job done, but people are still resisting them. In the case of one police droid, it is damaged so severely by human attack that it becomes unsalvageable and is set for the scrap heap.
We are given quite a tour of the robotics facility, run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), who does little more than say "Yes" and "No" to anyone who comes into her office. We discover, as we have in countless other films of late, that Weaver is in the film for the sci-fi vibe, letting her enormous talent go to waste. She has two project heads working for her: Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who designed the intelligence portion of the droids; and Vincent Moore, who heads up the team working on the blunt instrument version of security droids known as Moose, an enormous creation with weapons poking out of every robot orifice that seems more suited for war than civil disobedience. Moore and the Moose are on the way out at the company, so he spends most of the film looking for ways to mess with Deon and his robots to make the Moose appear relevant and required.
Out on the street, a small group of local thugs (Ninja, Yolanda, and Yankie) who have gotten into a bit of trouble with their psychotic boss, owing him millions and coming up with a plot to rob an armored car after they find a way to turn off all the police robots. Simple as that. What they don't anticipate is that Deon has grand ideas about creating a fully functional artificial intelligence, and on one particular day, he steals the to-be-scrapped robot and other parts to take home to work on installing his program into it. The bad guys find out he's the creator of the very robots they want to shut down, so they kidnap him and find the robot (whom they name Chappie) in the back of his van. What luck!
Once Chappie is brought to life and begins talking (thanks to motion-capture work by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley), the film loses what was impressive about it. Chappie learns fast but he must be taught everything, much like a child. These teaching sequences are amusing in the beginning, but they get silly and ridiculous fairly fast. Plus, the street punks teaching him are idiots and soon turn Chappie into a hip-hop gagnsta, strutting and talking like them, using guns (and holding them sideways) and generally trying to teach him the skills necessary to help with their heist. Thanks to Deon, Chappie does have a type of morality about committing crimes, but even that is dealt with when his friends are threatened or hurt.
One of the strangest decisions made by the gang is letting Deon go once he's turned Chappie on. Granted, no one really knows that he's gone missing or given this unprecedented technology to a damaged robot, but he seems intrigued about the idea of leaving Chappie with these morons, even if we aren't. The result, sadly, is the CHAPPPIE becomes more of a gimmick film and less of a serious contemplation about the potential threat or benefit of AI. And this goes back to Blomkamp's issue with putting flash and entertainment ahead of even the smallest amount of intellectual storytelling.
Another issue is the performances. It genuinely seems like every line of dialogue was typed in capital letters with an army of exclamation points at the end of every sentence. No one seems to know how to dial anything down. Even the character of Chappie is a bit too hyped up, which may explain why his irreplaceable battery is running down at an alarming rate. And he doesn't seem nearly as intelligent as we keep being told he is. It actually feels like he's recording every thing he hears and repeating it back with a question mark on the end, and it gets real old, real fast, like bad improv.
I suppose I should give the film points for its great effects. Much like DISTRICT 9, the interactivity between the CG Chappie (and other robots) and the real world is seamless. Thanks to the motion-capture process, there's a weight to CHAPPPIE, but he also moves with an odd, believable combination of grace and clunkiness. It's actually an endless source of fascination. What is ultimately the most confusing element of CHAPPPIE is its message. Is it that humans are a bigger threat than rogue robots? Except the nice ones, who aren't always nice all the time? By the end, pretty much every character makes everything from huge errors in judgement to outright villainous attacks on other humans.
From its screeching dance music soundtrack to its tendency to blow everything up and save its one clearly inspired moment for the very end of the film, CHAPPPIE is a film loaded with big—even great—ideas, few of which are executed with any style or substance. It's as if Blomkamp is afraid that if he turns the volume down and slows the action, we'll notice something flawed in his storytelling. If anything, the opposite is true. The louder and faster things get, the more flaws we notice being covered up. Even after the failure of ELYSIUM to connect, CHAPPPIE is still a major disappointment.