It’s difficult third film time for writer/director Neill Blomkamp, the release of his latest feature almost overshadowed by the near simultaneous announcement that he has been signed by 20th Century Fox to helm the perhaps unsought for resurrection of Alien, a series which once stood alongside Star Wars and Planet of the Apes as the science fiction tentpoles of that mighty studio.
Returning to his homeland of South Africa, Chappie is set in a near future version of Johannesburg, home of the weapons technology corportation Tetravaal headed by the the driven Michelle Bradley (genre legend Sigourney Weaver). Their principal product is the Scout programme, armour plated autonomous robotic police officers who engage in armed combat on the streets of the troubled city, acting as shields for their more vulnerable colleagues and deliberately putting themselves in the line of fire in the war on gun and drug crime.
The brainchild of programmer Deon Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel), he has engendered the fierce resentment of engineer Vincent Moore (Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman) whose own prototype, the heavily armed MOOSE, has suffered development issues which have resulted in budget cuts to his department, but neither is Deon without his own problems.
He has an ambitious side project to further develop the Scout control programme to a true artificial intelligence, but Ms Bradley turns it down flatly: it is not their product, it is not something she will entertain. Absconding with the remains of Scout #0022, damaged in the line of duty with a fused power pack which cannot be repaired and scheduled to be scrapped, Deon plans to continue his project out of sight with or without permission.
Across the city, criminal low-lifes Ninja and Yolandi (Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er of rap-rave group Die Antwoord playing extreme fictionalised versions of their stage personas) have spectacularly failed in a heist. Suddenly laden with a debt of R20 million to kingpin Hippo (Elysium‘s Brandon Auret), they and their injured colleague Yankie (The Walking Dead‘s Jose Pablo Cantillo) must raise the money within seven days or face his bullet laden wrath. They hatch a plan, the first step of which is kidnapping the designer of the supposedly unhackable robots who are cleaning up the streets, who just happens to have with him the remains of Scout #0022…
The challenge of the production is making the audience believe in Chappie, the prototype artificial intelligence housed in the body of a damaged police robot; that he is the most nuanced, entertaining and engaging personality of the film highlights the flaw in the film, that the human characters are neither convincing nor endearing.
Both Jackman and Weaver are little more than extended cameos and neither are given the opportunity to develop their one-note characters, Ms Bradley being a more highly strung version of Working Girl‘s Katharine Parker and Moore the more unhinged version of Wolverine’s berserker mode, a part which would normally have been played by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley had he not been providing the voice and motion capture for Chappie himself.
Thus the majority of the narrative falls upon Ninja, Vi$$er and Patel; while Deon is a competent computer programmer, he is essentially a reactionary character, forever stumbling into situations he is not equipped for, losing sight of the danger he is in and the irresponsibility of his actions when all he sees is his dazzling creation. A small time foul mouthed thug with delusions of importance, Ninja amounts to little more than bravado and profanity, and it is only through the more sympathetic performance of Vi$$er who adopts the role of Chappie’s mother that the film holds together at all.
To create a connection with a wholly artificial character is not easy, but Blomkamp’s technical skills have always been his strength as a director, as demonstrated amply in both District 9 and Elysium. The rendering of Chappie is flawless, never for one instant less than convincing as a genuine presence, the mannerisms and inflections of Copley translated into a new digital life which approaches everything with intimidating enthusiasm.
This is the third time Blomkamp has addressed the theme of unsustainable divided societies and the lone figure who must cross the bridge between them, and while the final act does not collapse as comprehensively as Elysium there are still huge flaws in the logic, not the least of which are the inept security processes at Tetravaal which would seem to undermine the principals of their business proposition.
With the unleashed MOOSE undeniably influenced by RoboCop‘s ED-209, other touchstones include Caprica and Dollhouse, though fortunately the concept of digital consciousness is handled more competently than in Wally Pfister’s Transcendence. Robotic artificial intelligence has been examined in filmed science fiction so comprehensively, from Blade Runner to Battlestar Galactica and more recently in Ex Machina and Big Hero 6 (Deon’s video diaries are frighteningly similar to those of Tadashi Hamada) that it is difficult to find something genuinely new to offer, and it is here that Chappie fails to exceed the manufacturer’s specification.