Chappie continues Neill Blomkamp's obsession with high-minded social allegory
Neill Blomkamp at least started out tackling ideas he seemed to know something about. His debut feature film as a director District 9 was a bold vision of high-concept science fiction with a splash of social realism grounded in issues concerning the systematic social segregation and racial tension of his native Johannesburg, South Africa. In hindsight, District 9 might be the zenith of his achievements; a personal story that obviously cut Blomkamp deep and also happened to make a sizeable return financially. Since then, Blomkamp has embarked on two very similar projects; the much broader and less impactful Elysium and now the crib-walkin’, jive-talkin’ self-aware robot film Chappie.
While Elysium could be forgiven for being a potential misstep, a victim of second-film syndrome if you will, Chappie unfortunately solidifies the notion that Blomkamp might not be the visionary science fiction filmmaker that District 9 promised. Rather, after three films he seems more like a Hollywood pitchman, hurling high-concept visions at the wall and hoping something sticks. That might be an unfair assumption to make, but it isn’t a difficult one. Particularly after watching Chappie, a film that has nothing to say about South Africa or artificial intelligence, but rather uses these concepts as a means to blow stuff up.
Chappie starts out relatively interestingly at least, as it presents us with a near future vision of plummeting crime statistics in Johannesburg thanks to a robotic police force developed and sold to law enforcement by weapons manufacturer Tetravaal. The idea has been flirted with before, most effectively in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, and as Chappie opens it appears as though it might be channelling some of the ethical and moral quandaries of that film. Through a series of news bulletins Blomkamp alludes to the potential problems surrounding a mechanised police force, like the instability of their systems, their vulnerability to human interference (hacking) and social safety. Then we’re introduced to Chappie.
Chappie (as voiced by Blomkamp favourite Sharlto Copley) is an anomaly in this rigorous system. He’s the brainchild of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a whiz-bang software engineer who concocted the attack robots for Tetravaal, and whose fascinations with the implementation of artificial intelligence lead him to install a prototype software system into a robot that is ready for the scrap heap due to a malfunctioning, irreplaceable battery. Before Deon gets a chance to actually install the AI system he is kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi Visser, two local gangsters who also just happen to be members of the anarchic hip hop outfit Die Antwoord, both in and out of the film’s universe.
Their motives are to intercept Deon and hijack a “remote” that would allow them to “turn off” the police robots so they can perform a heist and steal enough money to pay back an even bigger local gangster Hippo (Brandon Auret). Upon discovering the Deon actually has a robot in his van, they swiftly change their plan and decide it might be a better idea to have their own robot, one moulded in their own image, and behold Chappie is born. Unfortunately, Chappie only has five days to live.
This premise, whereby Chappie the robot is corrupted by Ninja and Yolandi against his creator’s will, is perhaps the only interesting rumination to evolve from the film’s high-minded concept. Due to Deon’s highly malleable software, Chappie initially begins in a childlike state and is totally susceptible to the advances of his “daddy” Ninja and his “mummy” Yolandi. In this sense he comes to mirror the arc of an underprivileged youth, cast out into a violent world before he has a chance to develop a sense of empathy and morality. His default pathway to criminality at the hands of these mid-level gangsters might be familiar to many as his naivety quickly turns to violence that derives from peer pressure.
The real issue with Chappie though is that Blomkamp doesn’t seem overly concerned with these kinds of social insights like he was in District 9 and to a lesser extent Elysium, but rather focuses his energies on wandering, roundabout observations regarding artificial intelligence, mechanized identity and the forging of military technology with social safety. It’s quite obvious – after sitting through the endless diatribe and overt exposition regarding a “robot’s soul” and Chappie’s “potential for creativity” peppered throughout Chappie – that Blomkamp has done little to no research about AI and its issues. This isn’t only reflected through the character’s discussions with and about Chappie but also in the Sony-sponsored usage of technology. Even with the most basic of knowledge about the ways that technology can be and is used, it only takes the smallest amount of scrutiny and Chappie’s tech implementation breaks apart like ash in a fire.
It’s the flimsiness of the ideas in Chappie that lead to its downfall, as they inevitably become exposed as platforms upon which Blomkamp can implement his admittedly impressive special effects work. In Blomkamp’s world then, both on and off screen, technology and artificial intelligence reach their highest point of function in visions of violence and spectacle. Never mind the fact that AI discussions have been articulated on and off screen in more nuanced and detailed ways for many years before Chappie, look at how he shoots a rocket launcher and saves the day! Wasted opportunities and insights abound.
The real reason that anybody should go and see Chappie, apart from a visually impressive rendering of an anthropomorphised robot, is to see Hugh Jackman. The Crocodile Dundee of South African software engineering and Deon’s arch nemesis a few cubicles over, he is as terrible and fascinating as he’s ever been, oscillating between lovable ocker and manic, militant competitor at the flick of a switch. He’s a baffling cherry on an empty cake. Other than that, Chappie does very little with what it has and the end result is as lacklustre as big budget science-fiction epics come.