I thought director Neill Blomkamp was deeply invested in social justice. I mean, why wouldn’t I? He broke into the scene with the Oscar-nominated apartheid-allegory of District 9, and he followed it up with Elysium, a movie that I haven’t seen, but always thought off as a response to the battle for universal healthcare, occupy wall street, and the 99% movements. Watching his latest movie, Chappie, about a robot with the ability to think and feel like a human, I’m starting to think that I judged him wrong. Blomkamp might find inspiration for his new movies by looking at the latest headlines, but that doesn’t mean he has anything specific to say about them. Is there a philosophy to Neill Blomkamp beyond making a “cool” movie? I think there isn’t.
Like I said, the movie stars a robot named Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley). In the future, the South African police force has been largely replaced by a group of robots called “Scouts”. These robots were created by a character played by Dev Patel (who curiously starred in two of the movies released this weekend). Now, Patel has developed a new form of A.I., one that can think and feel for itself, and all he needs to see if he has achieved to create a “life” is a robot body that will house his software. Unlucky for him, his boss Sigourney Weaver won’t let him experiment on any of the police robots.
This is when thinks get convoluted. Patel is kidnapped by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser from the South African rap group Die Antwoord (who may or may not be playing themselves, and there are ways to support either claim). They are gangsters and want a robot of their own so they can pull off one last heist or something. Patel installs the software on a robot that turns out to be Chappie. Chappie is raised by Die Antwoord, who introduce him to a life of crime. Patel, meanwhile, does as much as he can to work around the gangsters in order to lead his robot through the “right path”. And there is also Hugh Jackman, who plays a rival robot-designer who is mad because the government prefers Patel’s designs to his.
Now, before I keep going there are two very important things you need to know about Chappie. The first is that Die Antwoord are the protagonists of the movie, or at least the co-protagonists. They are as much the focus of the movie as Chappie is. They might actually have more screen-time than he does. I just think people should know this before seeing the movie because they are barely mentioned or shown in the marketing material for the film, and because it is a bizarre choice on part of Blomkamp. It’s a choice that doesn’t work as well as Blomkamp probably intended, but it is a very bold choice and I respect that.
Secondly, I want to point out that Chappie, the character, is a feat of modern computer generated visual effects if I ever saw one. I’m not usually impressed by CG generated effects, but the way Chappie’s visual effects team manages to integrate the character into the action is some of the most realistic, and thus some of the least distracting work I have ever seen. It’s a shame that the effects work in this movie will probably go unrewarded when the Academy gives out awards a year from now, but it did have a pretty terrible opening weekend, and Oscar doesn’t exactly love flops. The effects team behind Chappie, however, should be proud of their work no matter is they get awards for it or not.
Now, that being said, Chappie is, above all, a profoundly dumb movie. I look forward to the day The Flop House does an episode on this movie, because they will have a field day extracting comedy out of the nonsensical behavior of the characters in this movie. Chief among which is almost anything that has to do with Hugh Jackman’s character. Starting with the fact that he goes to work at what is a civilian office while carrying a gun and ending with the thoroughly incomprehensible action plan he comes up with, which can only be explained by saying his character is an evil maniac.
Jackman makes no sense, and almost every other character in the movie is extremely dumb. They are constantly making the worst possible choices, but at least there is consistency in the fact that the world around them seems to be run by people who are just as stupid as they are. People who would put the security of a whole nation on the hands of a USB stick, and then proceed to store that USB stick in a cage with basically the same level of security of a high school locker.
In any case, no matter how dumb the plot of a movie is, one can always try to find solace in suspension of disbelief provided the movie has something interesting to say. Chappie, being a movie about both the creation of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence, and a future in which law enforcement has been put in the hands of machines looks like something that will have lots to say about our relationship to technology, the conflict of nature versus nurture, the concept of what it means to create life, or the abuse of power of a highly militarized police force. In the worst case scenario, one would think that it at least would have something to say about any of these things.
Well, no such luck. Blomkamp races through the themes of the movie, barely touching on any of them if at all. He refuses to decide what the thematic core of his movie is, instead he presents glimpses of the kinds of questions one might ask when thinking about the subject and uses them to fill in the blanks between set pieces. There is only one moments when I had a visceral reaction to Chappie. It was the moment when the Robot learns that he his battery will only allow him to live for five days, and confronts his maker, asking what the point of creating him was if he is going to die.
It’s somewhat of a familiar question for those who are familiar with Mary Shelley’s novel, or just the general idea of the Frankenstein monsters, but it still a very powerful question, and one that we will surely have to ask ourselves if we ever get to create A.I. with this level of humanity. Sure, the meaning of life is a supremely vast question, and I shouldn’t have expected Chappie, or all things, to try to pose a thesis on the subject, but when I saw that scene, I was more than willing to be impressed by a mainstream movie building its climax about such a question.
Sadly, Chappie is not interested in such an enterprise, and instead, I felt cheated. I felt Neill Blomkamp was not into the movie he was making. He presented me with the story of a robot who must deal with the notion of humanity, and delivered me an almost nihilistic piece of filmmaking that makes me think he has nothing but contempt for humans. Now, I’m not necessarily against filmmakers having contempt for humanity, but it is especially disingenuous when one tries to hide such contempt in the guise of a movie about human emotion and connection.
Chappie, like most Blomkamp movies, is set in slums, and inhabited by horrible human beings. Characters are either petty street-level criminals, white-collar soulless corporate types, or outright maniacs. The absence of law enforcement in Blomkamp’s world leads to complete chaos and destruction. Left on their own, humans are inherently bad. Despite all of this, the triumph of the movie is that the protagonists get to live in this world. Is that even something to be desired? What is the point of making a human story when you hate humans?
One last point about Chappie, and about Blomkamp as a filmmaker. I don’t exactly want to make any accusations, but I find it interesting that having started his career with a film that was an allegory for racism in South Africa, Blomkamp has gone on to have a very spotty record of portraying racial minorities on screen. Besides Dev Patel, all the people of color in Chappie are criminals. Similarly, while the death of every white member of our group of protagonists is treated like a melodramatic event, the one Latino member of that group dies by being unceremoniously ripped in half by a gigantic robot. I don’t know about you, but I think some more think-pieces could be written on this subject.
Grade: 3 out of 10