Chappie – Neil Blomkamp (2015)

Chappie has a lot of similarities to Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, at least in terms of style and theme, if not particulars. Both films are set in a dystopian near future where squalor and social strife are rampant. Both deal with misfits who band together to take on arms manufacturers. Both utilize a mixed bag of visual tropes, combining collages of news footage and reportage with action and dramatic sequences seemingly lifted from ’80s blockbusters. District 9 was interesting in parts, but overrated; the tone was uneven, veering from parody and an unlikable protagonist to social-issue tinged dramatics to body horror to straight up actioner with a now tragic protagonist (some would argue this is a character arc, I suppose, but the pacing of the enterprise, jerking moment by moment from one style to another, undercut my sympathies). Much was made of the social allegory that served as the overarching conceit of the film, but I found it sketchy, obvious, and glib. All the same, District 9 worked, and was enjoyable, as the film did deliver the goods during the action sequences. Chappie, on the other hand, works, but like Chappie himself – in a semi-broken, cobbled together way that annoys as much or more than it runs.

Again, we are in tomorrow’s Johannesburg, and again, we are concerned with the inner workings of a weapons manufacturer (run by boss Sigourney Weaver, in a thankless role). This company manufactures robotic police; the main product line, headed by developer Deon (Dev Patel), uses A.I. to provide lithe robots that serve as police shock troops, taking hits for the reduced regular forces that follow behind and clean up after them. These robots are not sentient per se, and do not think for themselves outside of their police duties – they are not Robocop. That role is left to the minority product line, developed solely by ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman), the office psycho and resident mullet wearer. He has been pushing his solution to rampant violence, the Moose, which looks like a small mech, or a larger version of the Robocop suite. It does not contain a human; rather, a human wears the headset from Brainstorm and runs the mech from a video-game console. (Why the helmet is necessary when joysticks are included is never explained). The Moose is getting no traction within the company, as the local cops see no need for cluster bombs, ballistic missiles, and chain guns within their arsenal. (Canny Americans would see no need for such discretion). The nimble scouts (as I think they’re called) are popular and work well, having tamped down violence in Johannesburg to record lows. Deon, in his free time, has been working on a more fulsome A.I. that will give the scouts consciousness; he wants to try out his work on a broken scout set for destruction, but CEO Weaver, seeing no upside to thinking, feeling shock troops, nixes the plan. Deon goes ahead and takes the droid home anyway, but at this point he is intercepted by the real plot, as “gangsters” Ninja and Yo-landi Visser (playing themselves, essentially) carjack him and his droid, wanting to use it to rob millions of dollars from an armored car to pay back their even more degenerate overlords. The Antwoords force Deon to upload consciousness to the now-repaired robot, and proceed to put the nature vs. nurture debate to a ghetto fabulous test as they become Chappie’s “Mom and Dad.” Mom is all protective and tries, along with Deon, to foster Chappie’s creativity and humanity, whereas Dad simply wants him to mimic his gangster stylings and be willing to do crimes with him. Chappie is torn between these two worlds, but somehow works out his own personality, a kind of wuss outre gangster who won’t use weapons and is only willing to stab people because convinced he’s helping them “nap.” All of this is given an existential boost by the fact of Chappie’s imminent demise; as a broken toy, his battery is low and cannot be recharged, meaning he will die in five days. Thus opportunities for him to explore all his emotions as he wrestles with the meaning of life and the question of why a benevolent Deon would bring him into this world only to let him die. (Oh, the humanity). There is a lot of death that finally goes down, as evil Hugh Jackman, now wise to the power of corporate espionage and inter-office skulduggery, uploads destructive viruses to the scouts, and leaves the Moose as the only option to deal with Chappie, now enemy number one as he has partaken in Dad’s armored car heist. Chappie, now human enough to compromise his integrity to gain a new body, eventually does make use of high-octane firepower, and although the Moose goes on to kill many, including Deon, Mom, and a slew of usefully slain baddies, Chappie manages to both render the Moose moot, as well as provide new bodies for all his dead or dying peeps. Of course, they now have to exist as robotic versions of themselves, but that’s apparently not a problem for anyone.

Sorry for that description, which feels both skimpy and overly-elaborate at the same time. Perhaps now you don’t need to see the film! There is not a lot to recommend about the movie, and I must warn that many will probably find Chappie himself as annoying as Jar-Jar (who he does sound like). I found him a little more likable, kind of like Johnny Five’s clueless foreign cousin (Balki Three?). The amount of swearing and violence – Chappie gets set on fire, gets his arm sawed off, and everyone in Blomkamp’s films tend to explode like massive blood squibs, a trait inherited from his mentor, Peter Jackson – probably rules out this being a film with family appeal, but the themes are too soft and the portrayals too cartoony for adults to sink their teeth into. The minor bits of the preposterous nag. For instance, how can Chappie transfer his consciousness with a cranial cap designed for a human head? Why does Hugh Jackman work for this company? (His product stinks, his attitude is crap, and we expect, given the intro news footage, that he is indeed a competing entrepreneur). The answer to such questions, of course, is because the plot demands it. District 9 had many such problems as well, but in both cases, these instances of lameness don’t drag the whole enterprise down. No, it is the lameness of the larger questions that ultimately sink Chappie. The film is pitched, at its most serious, as a consideration of the nature of A.I., and, by extension, human consciousness. Hugh Jackman is suspicious of software brains, and believes humans should always be in control (for reasons both megalomaniacal as well as philosophical). Deon is obviously an A.I. fan. The film seems to be agnostic… until the final reel, when it becomes apparent that all consciousness is just blowin’ in the wind, and will, like undemanding dandelion fluff, happily settle where it can. Better anything than death! We expect, as Deon is transferred into a droid’s body at the moment of his demise, that he’ll at least have a qualm or two about the transformation. Perhaps a shudder of horror, or an “oops, that was one upload too many.” But no. He takes a gander at himself, and is immediately good to go, thrilled to still be in lovely ol’ Johannesburg no matter the cost. He quickly sets about saving Chappie by porting him to a new body, and then they take off together, hiding out until they can virtually seize control of an automated robotics factory (someone forgot to activate Microsoft Security Center) and start churning out pals. The first of which is Mommy, of course. New bodies for everyone! Not a problem, and not even a beat reserved to consider the ramifications, or the opposition, mulleted though it may be. So much for the human. All that is interesting about this conclusion is that it serves as a kind of prophetic image of robotic Marxism, with the workers seizing control of the means of production… to reproduce! Perhaps Marxism really needs the singularity for its actualization – workers and owners, masters and slaves, fused into one neat little product with soul.

Two stars out of five