From my first glance at the trailer, I was skeptical.
Here we have an aggressive government entity, a gentle scientist, and a wacky gentile robot who is threatening national security – because robots can’t LEARN, they can’t be SENTIENT, what is this MADNESS!? IT’S TOO DIFFERENT – KILL IT, KILL IT DEAD. And then we learn everything we’ve heard before about nature vs. nurture and BOOM you’ve got yourself a remake of Short Circuit starring my favorite zef hoodlums, Die Antwoord, as well as Dev Patel trying to shake off The Last Airbender, and Hugh Jackman’s rage-inducing mullet.
Well gee, it’s a good thing that I don’t religiously follow trailers, or else I’d be incredibly disappointed pretty much all the time. And it turns out, I wasn’t totally right. Let’s first straighten out that synopsis:
Due to a correlating rise of crime and police mortality rate in Johannesburg, the South African government has decided to invest in a weapons corporation called Tetravaal, fronted by CEO Michelle Bradley (yay Sigourney Weaver!).
Tetravaal’s key contribution to the police force are semi-AI “scouts,” developed by Deon Wilson (Patel). Wilson has aspirations of greater uses for technology, in his spare time developing an AI that can learn and create – you know, no big deal.
After some gangland shenanigans, Chappie (impressively played by Sharlto Copely) is born. Chappie must be taught as a child would, and thanks to his gangster parents, Yolandi and Ninja, he learns quickly the good and evils of the world, while establishing his own consciousness and existence.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s über-machismo co-worker Vincent Moore (Jackman) is becoming increasingly obsessed with getting his war machine off the ground, vexed by Wilson’s success.
As mentioned, I was concerned that this was going to be another one of Blomkamp’s “big mean government” deals – and I wasn’t entirely wrong, but it didn’t rub me the wrong way like Elysium did – and even Neill Blomkamp admits he messed up with that one. Chappie is really more akin to District 9: It begins with a documentary style, it’s set in Johannesburg, has Sharlto Copley as a vulnerable creature, and even ends in a slum. It’s like if you took District 9, Short Circuit, and Die Antwoord and tossed everything into a blender.
Speaking of our duo, I think they did alright – I mean, it’s not the first time they’ve acted. And really, they were kind of what I expected, considering that Blomkamp made a point to use their personas as a springboard. Though I would have rather seen Yolandi a bit more of a badass: after Chappie arrives, she just seemed to either coddle or lay around, smoking and waiting. Huh. Maybe I should call my mom.
On the note of characterizations, I’m amazed that Moore wasn’t written as an American (or maybe he originally was?). Here we have a man who brandishes a handgun in an office while telling coworkers to join him at church, and builds a robot that is just dripping with excess – do you really need a claw that can tear a human body in half? Okay, maybe that doubles as a jaws of life – but the cluster bombs?
Maybe making him an American would seem too obvious – like if a Hispanic man would have been cast as the lead in Elysium. Okay, I’ll quit ragging on Elysium. On the other hand, I’m not that familiar with other countries’ conservative stereotypes, so maybe keeping Moore an Australian makes sense?
Even though Chappie felt a bit like a re-hashed District 9 at times, I think Sharlto Copley’s performance really brings some much-needed heart into this story. Granted, he was designed with curious eyes and ears to better recognize as some sort of relatable creature (Red Letter Media talks about this sort of thing in Plinkett’s fantastic Avatar review), but the physical and vocal performance really shines through.
UH OH SPOILERS
Though technobabble was kept to a minimum (though now I know anything can be accomplished with a suped-up Roomba and enough Redbull), I still find myself wanting to know more about the construct of consciousness as data. I mean, does it get saved like a save state in that moment, like all the memories? Like in Yolandi’s case, that was a while until she was booted up again. …How would her robot walk out of the Tetravaal plant anyway? Also, wasn’t that the plot to Transcendence? (I still haven’t seen it.)
And was it established as to whether or not Chappie feels pain? I figured he didn’t (because that would have to be learned somehow), but the sniveling theatre-goers aside me seemed to believe otherwise. And if consciousness is stored, is it like you’re dreaming? Can it get infected with malware? What happens if it gets deleted? How much memory does a person take up? Maybe that would make the better movie. Or maybe I should just watch Transcendence to make sure this wasn’t already answered, but I doubt it.
YOU CAN COME BACK NOW
On the whole, I really dug this movie. It was heavy when it needed to be, but still kept things playful. In retrospect, I think that Neill Blomkamp is better at writing characters (and general scenarios) than actual stories, because it did feel more pieced together and predictable than it should have, especially given the amount of material one could work with. A tad misguided, yes, but I think Copley’s gentle take on an overused trope is worth the watch.
Final Grade: B