There’s lots to like in Chappie, a gritty sci-fi crime thriller from the director of the District 9. So much, that at times it felt like this was a retelling of that film with robots instead of aliens. If you imagine a mashup of Robocop and District 9, you’d be on the right path to understanding Chappie.
Like many films in the sci-fi genre, however, this also tries too hard and wants to cover too many stories, including an exploration of the meaning of consciousness and life, an industrial intrigue about competing researchers and their willingness to undermine each other to get their own project funded, a story of bureaucratic corruption and incompetent police, and even a sort of redemption story of a gang of small time thugs who gain heart by helping raise an infant child/bot.
Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the bright young engineer who has created the semi-autonomous Scout police robots for the Tetra Vaal Corporation, but at home he experiments with more sophisticated, self aware AI. His rival at the company is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has a much larger, more aggressive robot known as the “Moose” but which looks a whole heck of a lot like the infamous ED-209 from Robocop.
Tetra Vaal is based in Johannesburg, South Africa (as was District 9) and is headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) who portrays a clueless CEO who is easily manipulated by her staff. In fact, all of the authority figures in the film come across poorly, particularly the representatives of the South African Police Force. Shades of Alfred Hitchcock?
When Deon figures out the programming needed to bring consciousness to one of the Scout robots, he asks CEO Bradley to support his project and she refuses. The result? He steals Scout 022, a damaged police robot scheduled for destruction. On his way back to his condo with the robot parts, he’s kidnapped by desperate criminals Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (played by the rap-rave duo of the same name) who believe he can control the police robots and help them commit a big score. They, we learn, are in deep with the local criminal boss and if they can’t come up with $20 million within a week, are going to be very dead.
Here’s where things start to get rather inexplicable in terms of motivations, who does what, where people are at specific times in the narrative, inconsistencies in Yo-Landi’s behavior and how much Deon can get away with when arguing with the tattoo-covered Ninja about bringing Chappie to life. And he does bring Chappie (played by Sharlto Copley then reimaged through VFX) to life and Chappie begins its life as a frightened child who then adopts Deon as “Maker” and Yo-Landi as “Mommy”. She softens as her maternal instincts kick in while Ninja sees Chappie as a tool to be shaped into a criminal sidekick, and the third part of their criminal gang “Amerika” (Jose Pablo Cantillo) seems to just want another “brother from the barrio” to rap with.
By this point in the film I have to admit, I had stopped worrying too much about the logic of the story and the narrative hiccups because the movie itself is such a pleasure. There’s tons of action, satisfyingly bad criminal gangs who are right out of Grand Theft Auto, a great performance by Jackman as the bad engineer and a thoughtful exploration of consciousness and life between Deon, Yo-Landi and Chappie.
The ending is a bit daft — they’re surely set up for a sequel — but I enjoyed Chappie and would recommend it if you can stomach the high level of obscenity in both the dialog and the soundtrack and the violence that’s come to characterize a Neill Blomkamp movie. It’s a good riff on the AI / robot genre and worthy of viewing and discussion.