Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi is a bit more intelligent than people are giving it credit for. It’s a flawed film, for sure, but it hits a lot of the right notes. Chappie touches upon the surface of themes like morality, humanity, consciousness and religion, but sometimes fails to really peel back the layers to expose something deeper and more meaningful inside. Where it does really succeed is in humanizing the titular character and allowing us to see him like we would a child, a pure soul that is molded by his environment. Chappie might not present a whole lot of new ideas, but it has a lot of heart, and it isn’t afraid to be silly, and that’s what I liked most about it.
Among one of the many resemblances to District 9, Chappie starts with talking heads giving exposition about what’s going on in the world. Thanks to people like Anderson Cooper, we find out that the police force has been replaced by robots called Scouts, and Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the creator. Thanks to Deon’s Scouts, crime in Johannesburg has decreased dramatically.
One robot, Scout 22, suffers a big blow in the field, causing his battery to become fused inside him, so he’s due to be crushed. Deon, who has recently figured out a formula to give the robots a mind of their own, steals 22 to test it. Before he can, he is kidnapped by Yolandi and Ninja (of “Die Antwoord” fame), and their partner Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). They want Deon to turn off the robots so they can carry out a successful heist. When he assures them this isn’t possible, they force him to reprogram 22 so that they can train it to work for them. When he wakes up, Yolandi gives him the name “Chappie” and he eventually becomes a part of their gangster family.
Chappie is essentially a child. When Deon gives him a mind of his own, it’s like a baby being born, not knowing how to speak or being able to recognize the world around him. Deon, as the creator, is a God-like figure if you’re looking at this in terms of religion. Chappie actually learns morality from him. Before Deon leaves him with Yolandi and Ninja, he makes Chappie promise that he won’t hurt other people. It’s like God giving Moses the Commandments, you know…”Thou shalt not kill,” that sort of thing. The funny thing is that it sticks with him. Throughout the film, he remains adamant about not using guns on people, despite Ninja successfully molding him into the gangster lifestyle in other ways.
Yolandi is the compassionate mother figure who comes to really love and care about Chappie. She teaches him about mortality and “the beyond.” Ninja, aside from being a selfish jerk who tries to manipulate him, is the father who tries to teach Chappie that the world isn’t a nice place, and that he has to be tough if he wants to survive in it.
Chappie’s consciousness is brought into existence by humans and shaped by humans, and so he logically becomes a human in a robot body. He feels fear, sadness, love, and like all humans, becomes fearful of his own mortality. As his irreplaceable battery begins to run out, he questions why a creator would bring him into the world just so that he could die, a question I’m sure plenty of us have asked before: what is the purpose of life if we are only meant to die? Now this is what I mean when I say this film touches upon the surface of interesting themes. Unfortunately, it eventually does get bogged down by action, violence, and a couple insignificant and ridiculous characters.
I haven’t yet mentioned the role Hugh Jackman plays in this, and that’s mainly because I hated his character. No, not because he was evil (yes, he’s evil), but because he was mainly dull and annoying, and I got tired of him really fast with his stupid mullet and cargo shorts. Hating Hugh Jackman? Yeah, that’s a first for me. He plays Vincent, who is a bastard former soldier and an engineer obsessed with wrecking Deon’s robots and promoting his own human-controlled, giant robots who are decked out with all the weapons you’d need for destroying an entire city, let alone fighting urban street crime. For most of the movie, he seemed like nothing more than an insignificant side story, and his character was like an annoying fly buzzing about that you couldn’t swat down. I’d like to just pretend he didn’t exist. Sigourney Weaver can join him in the void of wishful nonexistence because she was equally as stupid and even more insignificant.
Let’s talk about the purpose of having “Die Antwoord” as main characters in this film. I mean, why? I have to assume it’s for the same reason Blomkamp wanted Eminem to play Matt Damon’s role in Elysium. What that reason is, I’m not sure, weird fascination with rappers I guess? I went into this fully expecting to be annoyed by them, but truth be told, the scenes with them teaching Chappie how to live the gangster lifestyle was hilarious and very entertaining. Yes, it’s a little annoying that they wore their own merch and that the soundtrack was basically all Die Antwoord, making this film kind of seem like a 2 hour music video at times, but I still enjoyed most of their scenes, and I thought they had an interesting and dynamic relationship with the main character.
The CGI and mo-cap in this film is excellent. Along with these things, Sharlto Copley, who plays Chappie, does a great job with making him feel human. For example, in scenes like when Chappie was getting abused by thugs I felt like I was watching an innocent child being abused, I was actually upset and disgusted by it. He’s a piece of metal, but you care about him like you would any other human in any other story. It’s the same way I felt watching the aliens being oppressed in District 9. Blomkamp may miss the mark sometimes, but he knows how to present those human elements and make them feel real, and of course, having the right actor to portray them is a plus.
The only other issues I had with this film is the ending. I can’t get into it without giving too much away, but I felt like it was rushed. I wanted the film to spend more time with the idea, and for those who have seen this already, you know what I’m talking about. Instead, what we got was a long scene involving a shoot-out and Ninja making ridiculous facial expressions. I didn’t like how some of the truly interesting sci-fi elements took the backseat to the ultra violent action. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an action fanatic, but I know when it is and isn’t appropriate. Blomkamp does know how to handle action scenes well, I’ll admit, but I just wanted…more, more than just that.
In the end, I feel like most critics were overly harsh on Chappie. It wasn’t perfect, but I think it’s far from the derivative piece of crap some are making it out to be. Chappie is an extremely likable character who is easy to sympathize with and care about. The film does touch on interesting themes, focusing more on an A.I. discovering consciousness and mortality, as opposed to focusing on clichèd plot devices like the A.I. threatening humanity. Unfortunately, the action does drag the plot down a bit, and there are a couple of characters who I wish were never written into the script, but Blomkamp does a mostly good job presenting plenty of silly and humorous elements to remind you this is a sci-fi film involving a child-like robot being raised by rappers. Let yourself have fun with it, and you may come out with a more positive view.