He brought you District 9, a South African sci-fi racism allegory in which Sharlto Copley slowly goes nuts before learning a life lesson, and everything ends in EXPLOSIONS. He brought you Elysium, a big Hollywood sci-fi healthcare classism allegory in which Sharlto Copley spends the entire film nuts while learning nothing, and everything ends in EXPLOSIONS. And now, writer/director Neill Blomkamp brings you Chappie, a South African sci-fi determinism allegory in which Sharlto Copley learns life lessons, then goes nuts, then learns more life lessons, and everything ends in EXPLOSIONS. Cinematic progress marches on!
Short version for the unfamiliar: In a near-future where scrawny police robots are the next big thing, the affable scientist who invents them, Deon (Dev Patel, keeper of the Exotic Marigold Hotels), wonders if they’d work even better if he upgraded one to true A.I. so that no human element would be necessary in law enforcement. His coworker, a conservative caricature with a mullet (Hugh Jackman!) who likes his automated enforcers bigger and bolder, thinks cop-bots still need a human side to keep them on the straight and narrow. As rivaling coworkers at Tetravaal, their clashing stances turn the movie into a sort of Bizarro Robocop.
Deon’s plans go awry when his pet project, Scout 22, is stolen (it’s not kidnapping since it isn’t self-aware yet) by murderous, coke-dealing gangsters desperate for hardware that’ll help them pull off one last heist to pay off a seven-figure debt to their extra-murderous coke-dealer overlord. They kidnap Deon and give him incentive to jump-start his project for their benefit. With a bit of typing and plug-‘n’-play, Scout 22 is wiped and Chappie is born. Or reborn, as it were, with a filtered Sharlto Copley as his whimsical voice.
The struggle ensues over Chappie’s consciousness and upbringing. Deon wants him raised a morally upright super-genius. The gangsters dream of him becoming “Gangsta Robot #1” and teach him to curse, strut, wear more gold chains than Mr. T, hold a gun sideways, and adopt other quaint habits that might be “cool” if Chappie were an American film shot in 1993. For older viewers struggling to picture it, imagine if there’d been a Short Circuit 3 with Johnny Five listening to too much NWA and becoming co-host of Yo! MTV Raps. In Blomkamp’s vision, this is the wave of the future.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The leaders of the gang, Ninja and Yolandie, are played by the leaders of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, whose stage names are Ninja and Yolandie. Half the soundtrack comprises several of their singles. Their wardrobe appear to be official Die Antwoord merchandise you can probably buy online. (Given the movie’s U.S. box office results, I wouldn’t bother checking Hot Topic.) Their campy presence and pervasive Day-Glo set dressings basically rule Chappie and qualify it for filing alongside Cool as Ice, Spice World, Glitter, and other works designed as pop-star vehicles first and movies second.
Trying to bring a modicum of down-to-Earth balance to the gang is Hoosier-born Jose Pablo Cantillo, formerly the Governor’s right-hand man on The Walking Dead, who also guest-starred in a recent Constantine episode. In a bid for better sci-fi cred, the movie adds Sigourney Weaver as the head of the robot company, who’s not really evil or blameworthy in any of this. For a value-added real-world touch, Anderson Cooper pops up once as himself.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? At first glance you’d think Chappie is another fully conscious robot who just wants to live free like any other human, in the tradition of Data, Bishop, Alan Tudyk’s I, Robot robot, Haley Joel Osment in A.I., and dozens of other second-class robot citizens out there. At the point where the question would be relevant, no one’s asking it anymore. We get the impression A.I. is against company rules and maybe a law, but those discussions take place before Chappie’s activation. By the time he learns speech, movements, and human interaction well enough to leave home base and capture the public’s attention, he’s already been conscripted into a life of crime. Whether or not he deserves to live becomes moot; once the human suffering begins, he’s just another wanted criminal like his adopted gangsta parents.
Anyone who’s ever tried to co-parent a child whose other family side is their polar opposite should sympathize with Chappie’s plight to an extent. As the befuddled robot’s inventor and upgrader, Deon has a bright future in mind for his creation, but all his intentions are undermined by bad influences and the disastrous consequences of poorly exercised free will. Ultimately Chappie determines his own personality and no one else gets exactly what they want from him. It’s a tidy microcosm of 21st-century parenting and the effects of human corruption on God’s Plan.
There’s a thin undercurrent of thought about what makes a living being truly alive. Mommy Yolandie tells her precious Chappie he has a soul, but that’s as far as her theology goes. If Deon has an opinion, it’s never expressed in any terms beyond his proprietary defensiveness over what he created and made possible. The film’s final scenes take a different, barely foreshadowed direction that suggest a different discussion from another film altogether, but soulfulness is inherent to the concepts at play.
But mostly the events are constructed to lead to EXPLOSIONS. Blomkamp and his handy FX teams still excel at seamless CG integration and believably grungy near-future art design, and still rock those future gunfights, except for an early police shootout that looks competent but feels kind of pedestrian.
Nitpicking? The whole Die Antwoord aesthetic is based on South African “zef” culture. I have no idea if what they do here and in their YouTube videos is authentically “zef”. To this Yankee outsider it comes off as a Mad Max parody by way of ’80s rap. (The term “illest” is still a fresh gangsta compliment over there, apparently.) This was my first exposure to what they do and I’ll admit I failed to keep a straight face at their idea of “cool”. My son was familiar with them and their products, knew what to expect, and consequently didn’t share my giggling problem.
Above them in the gangsta chain of command is the coke-overlord Hippo (Brandon Auret, a Blomkamp regular), an extreme aggro-Zef boss who’s subtitled in all of his scenes. His Afrikaans accent is only slightly thicker than anyone else’s (frankly, Chappie himself could’ve used some subtitling action), but either someone thought it would be hilarious to subtitle him, or some executive complained and demanded subtitles for the sake of American viewers who only half-watch movies while multitasking on their phones. I think it would’ve made Auret’s musclebound, scenery-devouring maniac even scarier if half his sentences had been kept indecipherable, but that’s just me.
Chappie’s education is sketchy, sporadic, and conflicted enough that Ninja bamboozles it/him into thinking that attacking humans with shuriken won’t hurt or kill them, only make them “sleepy”. Given the number of slightly more advanced ideas Chappie has grasped up to that point, it’s sad to see him fall for a con that wouldn’t work on a 1970s outer-space robot. But fall for it he must, or else the climactic showdown won’t happen.
As for that showdown, which of course has to end with a robot-vs.-robot title match because that’s the way of such things, Blomkamp and company decided they weren’t done with Robocop yet and asked themselves: what would be even worse than ED-209? The answer: an ED-209 with a jetpack. At least it’s not rendered in stop-motion animation.
And then there’s Winged ED’s creator and remote driver, the Hugh Jackman. Even though his initial opposition to the entire bot-cop program isn’t unjustified and would make him a protagonist in other sci-fi films (not to mention a hero to the 150,000 “reserve” police officers referenced later in the film), his frustration with the company’s refusal to invest in his own war-machine designs (aside from the one Robo-Rocketeer prototype) makes him too impatient to wait for Deon’s unauthorized experiment to fail on its own flaws and sends him careening over to the Dark Side, where suddenly he decides to win the debate through evil methods, up to and including sacrificing innocent lives. And for no apparent reason he wears a cross around his neck and genuflects in at least two scenes. I can’t imagine a single thematic reason for making him quote-unquote “Christian” other than to point and snicker at conservative warmonger stereotypes or whatever. Y’know, the heavily armed “good-guy” Scouts aren’t exactly unarmed Peace Corps volunteers.
So did I like it or not? Why would you make a movie that’s the opposite of Robocop? I mean, EITHER Robocop? And then toss in a flourish from The Lawnmower Man?
Chappie is the result of a story design that’s more character-driven than theme-driven, setting up various beings in front of each other just to watch what happens and how “cool” they can be, but without caring whether or not their interactions add up to any valid, coherent Big Ideas. The end result is a two-hour music video that’s both campy and pretentious, and lies to itself about its own importance. Next time, either outline the Big Ideas first and structure the characters and plot movements to support your conclusions accordingly, or chuck the ideas and go full Michael Bay. Either approach would be less muddled and more honest than poor Chappie’s world. Maybe think twice before casting musicians in self-promotional acting roles, too.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Chappie end credits. If you stick around, you can read off names and job titles written in Shoebox Greetings font while Ninja takes lead vocals on yet another Die Antwoord single, followed by a section of Hans Zimmer’s thunderous, partly electronic score containing stentorian chants that sound like a Dark Knight Rises outtake.