Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Premise: Set in South Africa in the near future, violent crime has been brought under control by the use of police robots. A computer programmer installs artificial intelligence into one of the robots but the sentient machine is taken in by small time hoods who teach it to be a criminal.
What Works: Chappie is the latest film from director Neill Blomkamp, who had previously helmed District 9 and Elysium. Blomkamp is a very good filmmaker and on the level of moviemaking craft Chappie is extremely well produced. The title refers to the name given to a police robot that has been granted sentience and Chappie is as impressive of a computer generated character as the simians in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Chappie’s mechanical body has a great deal of detail and at no point does it feel like we are looking at a special effect but at a character who is interacting with the rest of the cast. Chappie showcases one of Neill Blomkamps’s great strengths as a filmmaker: his sense of proportion. The movie is paced well and it splits appropriately between the intellectual and the dramatic content while doling out the action sequences craved by mainstream audiences. As in most movies about a robot learning to be human, the story offers opportunities for humor but the film addresses some interesting philosophical issues as well and the comic and intellectual content is well handled. The proportions of Chappie are also admirable in the way Blomkamp stages his action scenes. Unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or even some of Marvel’s Avengers pictures, Chappie’s action sequences maintain a credible scale and the characters are never overwhelmed by the set pieces. Chappie also continues Blomkamp’s interest in political themes. This story of artificial intelligence dramatizes the nature-nurture argument and it takes on an added political dimension. Chappie was designed to be a police robot but he becomes a criminal due to the circumstances in which he is raised. The movie isn’t very subtle about this and the implications are provocative and relevant to the way we often think about criminals and deviant behavior.
What Doesn’t: A lot about Chappie is familiar from other science fiction movies. In particular, Neill Blomkamp has recycled quite a bit from his own 2009 feature District 9 as well as Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic Robocop. Borrowing from other movies is fine to do; the original Alien is a reworking of the 1958 drive-in feature It! The Terror From Beyond Space, but Ridley Scott’s picture presented those familiar elements in a new way and assimilated them to fit the tone and the story. Chappie sometimes has a patchwork feel. The film utilizes popular science fiction themes such as the mind-body problem, privatization of public services, and artificial intelligence, but it does not really do anything innovative with them. Chappie also suffers from some radical shifts in tone. The movie is at times very funny and in other places it’s horrifically violent but the humor and the violence don’t complement each other the way they do in Robocop. The moviemakers also seem confused about their characters, especially the criminals played by Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser and Jose Pablo Cantillo. They are established as villains who are corrupting Chappie but in the last third of the picture the regard for the criminals shifts for no reason. But the real character problem of Chappie is its title role. Unlike Johnny 5 of Short Circuit or C-3PO and R2-D2 of Star Wars, Chappie never really emerges as his own character; he’s only ever an imitation of those around him. That might be the point that the filmmakers are trying to make, that what we call personality is really just a reflection of the influences around us, but it’s a reductive premise that’s counter to the other themes of the movie.
Bottom Line: So many Hollywood science fiction movies are exercises in thoughtless destruction but Chappie is an attempt to be something else. The movie is flawed, not least because of how derivative it is, but Chappie is better and more thoughtfully made than a lot of mainstream sci-fi shoot-‘em-up pictures.
Episode: #533 (March 15, 2015)