Robot policemen keep the peace in the South Africa of the future. Their developer creates a new version with real artificial consciousness, but the new robot gets kidnapped by gangsters who try to raise it has a fellow gang member.
Another month, another robot movie. It was writer Michael Moorcock who said that most of American science fiction seems to be written by robots, about robots and for robots, and most of British fantasy written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits. With American movies, just so, it seems. We are just halfway through 2015 and already we’ve had Ex Machina, Age of Ultron, Tomorrowland and a Terminator movie. The first movie this year that hit it off with the robots was Chappie, by Neil Blomkamp.
Expectations were high. After the critical success of District 9, which I loved (see review), Blomkamp was praised as the new deliverer of gritty cyberpunk science fiction. Then Elysium hit the theatre and its reception was a bit ho-hum. Elysium illuminated for us that Blomkamp has great ideas but is in need of a screenwriter. The social commentary that was part of District 9 was bluntly shoved to the front in Elysium in an annoying way, while the marvelous science fiction ideas were shoved in for spectacle without being well embedded in the internal logic of the movie’s universe.
Hope was there that the mistakes of Elysium were recognized and were just a hiccup, and that Chappie would be a return to form. But Chappie repeats the same mistakes and makes some new ones along the way.
We return to the South Africa of the future, which I am really fascinated by as a setting. The social problems of that country in combination with futuristic cyberpunk offers a rich world of stories and feels like a breath of fresh air. But this time Blomkamp chooses the singers from the SA music group Die Antwoord as his main actors, but they can’t act. In a series of cringe-inducing scenes, Ninja and Yo-Landi try to raise the robot Chappie, but the characters and their acting and their voices are just so annoying. It boggles my mind why the director chose to do this. It is a risk that didn’t pay off at a time when he had to play it safe.
The rest of the movie, meaning everything that happens outside the central drama of Chappie, Ninja and Yo-Landi, is also flawed in its execution. The robotics lab houses the creator of Chappie, a good guy who tries to keep Chappie straight while the robot is kept by Ninja and Yo-Landi, and the central villain of the movie: Hugh Jackman. Jackman’s character is hilariously simple as a villain. He’s an Australian who walks around in short pants and is dressed for the bush, is overly religious and has a mullet. I’m sure that Hugh Jackman did the best with the material he had to work with, but it is a caricature.
I am also confused about what Blomkamp tried to portray with this movie. District 9 and Elysium are so simple and forward in their social commentary, but the main characters in Chappie are gangsters who try to raise Chappie as a gangster too. Are we supposed to root for them? Because I can’t. Was it supposed to be humoristic? Perhaps, but the tone does not make this clear. Is the message that AI is a blank slate, and that it will be either good or bad for humanity, depending on how we interact with it? Was that it?
It hurts me to talk bad about this movie because I really wanted it to be good. It had so much potential. Not everything was bad about the movie, which just makes the flaws more painful. Chappie the robot was nicely portrayed by Sharlto Copley and the special effects were very impressive. The story had a good pace too. Secretly, I still like this movie and the good wins from the bad, but for others that balance could easily tip the other way. I would recommend it only for people who like this sort of thing.