Despite some influential figures in the scientific community advocating against the development of artificial intelligence, there is a definite curiosity amongst humanity that will most likely ignore those warnings and proceed onward with their supposedly doomed tinkering. As a break from all of the AI dread, Chappie is a film that explores the cognitive development of an AI without any of the apocalypse undertones. Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium), Chappie retains many of the South African filmmaker’s themes and overall tone: the gritty atmosphere, the precise blend of digital and practical effects, and the emphasis on augmenting humanity in radically different ways. Certainly, Chappie is more reminiscent of District 9 in terms of the filmmaking style and the location (Johannesburg, South Africa), but what it lacks is a clear sense of direction, which is rather disappointing from a very promising director.
The problem that has begun to manifest is that it appears that Blomkamp is a director that has cool concepts, but his writing is rather lackluster. The movies themselves are interesting enough that he isn’t becoming the next Shyamalan but the pacing and some creative choices just don’t mesh very well together. It’s these qualities that cause Chappie to toe the line in terms of either being a trainwreck or a fascinating piece of science fiction.
So, in the near future, a company named Tetravaal in South Africa manufactures police robots to combat the high crime in the capital city. The creator of these robots has a pet project on the side: creating a true artificial intelligence that has the capacity to learn. When his proposal to test his AI out is rejected, the creator steals a damaged police robot with the intent to upload the AI into that body. However, two criminals who are forced to collect money for a gang lord desire to hijack a police robot so that they can carry out a heist ambush the creator and kidnap him. They force the scientist at gunpoint to upload the AI, whom the criminals dub “Chappie.” Chappie, at first, has the mind of a child and the criminals start to teach him (albeit poorly) on how to behave for the crime they have in mind but their progress is consistently hampered by the fact that Chappie is reluctant at hurting other humans so they have to resort to extreme measures in order to complete the monumental task that has been set for them.
There are a couple other subplots that have been crammed into the film, namely a rival weapons designer trying to push his own weapons program after his rejection in favor of the police robots, and the fact that Chappie’s body was damaged in the beginning so he only has a week to live before conking out from a dead battery. The whole plot of the film proceeded in a fashion that was very unexpected from my initial projections, namely due to the disastrously poor marketing the distributors had in place. Some parts of the film, like Chappie’s growth and development, as well as the action scenes, are perfectly done. Others, like the majority of the characters and the poor plot progression cause the movie to take a few steps back from the giant leap it already performed.
What was done correctly, though, was the film’s soundtrack, composed by the biggest name in the business: Hans Zimmer. It’s kind of odd to see Zimmer take on a project that is noticeably smaller scale than his last few assignments, and he didn’t hype his score all to hell like he did for the last two damn movies (Interstellar and Amazing Spider-Man 2), which seems to be proving a trend: the less hype, the better the product. And what a product it is! Assisted by only two ghostwriters (a pretty small team in comparison), Zimmer composed a completely electronic score with no obvious orchestral elements in it (something he hasn’t done since the 80s) and it is my favorite score of his since Rush. I even listened to the album twice on a recent plane ride because I loved it so much, which now makes me sound like a Zimmer fanboy, even though I purport to be the opposite. Chappie’s score may sound harsh, and the effects present could sound like an old-school video game while the swerving synth pads could immediately hearken back to the Mass Effect series, but it is a serious attempt from Zimmer to go in a new direction and I believe he pulled it off beautifully.
In terms of the cast, the one character who was done to perfection, and therefore the most important link, is Chappie himself, portrayed by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copely (District 9, Maleficent). I have to say that Copely’s motion capture combined with the seamless CGI made Chappie come to life in extraordinary ways. Hell, I couldn’t even tell if Chappie was a practical or digital effect because he looked so real. Chappie’s voice, actions, and innocence was probably the deciding factor for me enjoying this film, because Copely does such a damn good job with the character that I connected with him instantly.
Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionare) portrays Chappie’s creator, and although he is not all that engaging as a character, Patel does good enough acting that he manages to work with a flat script (the guy definitely needs to get himself more movies for he has some serious talent). Hugh Jackman (aka Wolverine) plays the rival weapons inventor and he is…meh, frankly. I really didn’t care about him all that much other than the fact that Jackman let his Australian accent loose rather heavily, which I found rather comical. Sigourney Weaver (Aliens, Avatar) takes on her second disappointing role in a movie (carried on from Exodus) as the CEO of the weapons company that created Chappie’s robot unit. Weaver really must have needed a paycheck because her character does nothing of value for the entire movie, which is a detriment to Weaver’s skills as an actress. So far, Chappie, aside from Sharlto Copely, managed to take a great cast and squander it all away with the flimsy script. Maybe Blomkamp and his wife (who was co-writer) should have sought out another screenwriter for proofreading.
But perhaps the most bizarre casting choices in Chappie have to be Watkin Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser, or more well-known as the members of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord (they actually portray somewhat characterized versions of their real-life personas), who play the criminals that foster Chappie’s learning and development. Even though these two are meant to be Chappie’s “parents,” as characters they are extremely unlikable, but that’s the film’s intent. We’re meant to see that Chappie is slowly being corrupted by these two scofflaws by being taught to curse and kill, despite Chappie’s wishes, and the audience slowly grows to hate the characters even more. I’m not so sure that this strategy managed to pay off, because we still end up despising the two in the end, and also more egregious is the fact that both of them can’t act worth a damn. Blomkamp must be a fan of Die Antwoord (as evidenced by the band’s placement in the soundtrack) and decided to cast them in what must be the weirdest product placement ever. I’d rather these two characters have been excised out of the film completely because the direction surrounding them was unfocused and poor, and that really hampered the film as a whole.
Yes, Chappie is uneven. Yes, it can get dull sometimes. Yes, the ending is a bit of a stretch in terms of scientific accuracy and suspension of disbelief. But, despite its flaws, I still like it. Chappie has style and a wide enough vision to make me overlook its stumbles (I still have to acknowledge them as they are that glaring) and I consider it to be a good attempt towards making a hard science fiction film. It certainly isn’t Short Circuit by any means as Chappie is a much more raw experience (and more violent). If you like sci-fi and are stuck waiting for Ex Machina to come out, then go ahead and spend the eight bucks on a matinee showing of Chappie. You probably won’t be blown away, but it is a good enough excuse for you to go out and blow a couple hours on.
Because…what else is in the theaters that is worth watching now anyway?
Final Score: 57/100