Chappie is the story of the first ever sentient robot created in a weapons factory in South Africa. It follows engineer Dion (Dev Patel) as he creates Chappie, the Artificial Intelligence (AI), and then attempts to raise the robot. However, his progress is impeded by his envious colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman) and Johannesburg gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (the real-life members of rap group Die Antwoord).
Chappie is overall a great and thoughtful experience, but the problems it does have come from its struggle to create two distinctly opposite experiences within one cohesive package. The film attempts to balance the thought provoking science fiction that Neill Blomkamp has been lauded for, with the overly blockbuster action that he has been criticized for in the past.
Blomkamp has had success and failures within these two areas. His first film District 9 is perhaps one of the best science fiction films of all time, establishing him as a master of poignant and provocative cultural introspect. His follow up, Elysium, presented somewhat shallow sci-fi, but offered action that was not only superbly executed but also thought provoking.
Chappie lives in the middle ground of these two experiences. It is possible to recognise the potential the film had to present powerful examples of both action and science fiction, but these two approaches got in each other’s way, preventing either of them to live up to that potential.
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That potential could have led to a masterpiece, and though Chappie certainly is not that, it is still a truly respectable science fiction experience. The film deals with high science concepts of AI, consciousness and human development in interesting and accessible ways. The trade-off to this accessibility is that the science itself is often bafflingly absurd, but this is forgivable given that the film is more interested in communicating concepts and consequences than hard science.
The development of Chappie offers the most in terms of thought provocation. We see Chappie from his first moment of existence quickly begin to learn and, more importantly, be influenced by his experiences and surroundings. The dichotomy between Dion’s emphasis on ethics and progress and Die Antwoord’s focus on survival in their criminal underworld creates a fascinating environment for Chappie’s character development. In Chappie, the experience of watching an entire childhood happen with the space of days highlights not only how impressionable developing minds are, but also that the human capacity for evil is fostered only by exposure to evil itself.
More interestingly, and perhaps more concerning, was the film’s depiction of AI. AI is widely considered by many in the scientific world to be the most likely cause of the end of the human race. As such, within entertainment it is typically treated with justified fear and horror. Chappie flies in this face of this perception, instead portraying AI as the next step in the development of the human race. Chappie himself as the first ever AI is in no way a malevolent or evil character, but rather an overwhelmingly lovable and sympathetic one.
One of the film’s biggest problems, aside from the jumbled approach, was the inconsistency of its performances. In particular Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman gave perhaps the most ineffectual performances of their careers. The saving graces were the performances from Sharlto Copley as Chappie and Yolandi and Ninja as themselves. Copley has played three distinctive characters in each of Blomkamp’s films, proving himself as a superb actor; Chappie may well be his best performance yet. The inclusion of Die Antwoord was a stroke of genius. They brought their unique and well developed characters, aesthetic and audio style to their scenes, creating a more diverse overall experience. Though Chappie isn’t the masterpiece it could have been, it is still a very respectable science fiction film with all the juicy thought fodder you could possibly desire.