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Neill Blomkamp recently admitted that he totally screwed the pooch on his second feature film, Elysium. Though he thought it was an “awesome idea,” he said he just “didn’t make a good enough film.” Perhaps he hoped to rectify this stain on his record with Chappie, his latest featuring Sharlto Copley as the first A.I. who begins his life not as an all-knowing entity, but as an infant slowly learning the ways of the world. For whatever reason, though, he just can’t seem to put the pieces together properly, and Chappie ends up being his weakest work yet.
Blomkamp is throwing around a lot of concepts: “What does it mean to be human?” “Should humans be playing God in making A.I.?” “What is consciousness?” Again, they are interesting enough, but the presentation isn’t right. You can’t help but laugh at Chappie. How can you not when there’s a CGI robot with rabbit ears trying to act gangster while wearing clunky gold chains?
In the not-too-distant future of Johannesburg, South Africa, a weapons manufacturing company has provided police forces with the ultimate defense: an army of pre-programmed robot soldiers (not unlike what Tony Stark is trying to make in the Avengers sequel) to monitor criminal activity. While they’ve essentially done away with major crimes, their creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has another pursuit. He’s been experimenting with creating artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, his company won’t support the research, as their only concern is making newer and better weaponry.
Still, Wilson does it, but not before he’s kidnapped by a gang who’s looking to score one last, big heist in order to pay their debts to bigger, badder criminals. These thugs (who are played by South African rap/rave group Die Artwoord) want Deon to shut down all the robots so they can go on a crime spree. While he can’t do that, he promises them the next best thing in order to secure his own safety: he’s going to install his A.I. program into one of these robots, which they can then raise as their own.
The program worked, but not as expected. Instead of awakening as a fully functional robot ready to kick some police ass, lil’ Chappie has the understanding of an infant -- though, an infant with an insane learning curve. His rate of learning is a bit unclear. Most of the time he seems to consume information like Bizarro from DC Comics. He looks at something, or he hears something, and he can mimic it. Sometimes he understands what he’s processing. Other times, especially with human interactions, he can’t. This is why Deon keeps coming back, despite the objections from the gang, to help him grow into a being of substance who can create and think.
As Chappie develops, we see this robot more and more as a child born into unfortunate circumstances. He comes to see this group of criminals as his family, calling Yolandi (Die Antwoord’s Yolandi Visser) “mommy,” and Ninja (Watkin Jones) “daddy.” He doesn’t have all that much time to reach adulthood, though, as the gang needs him to be fully operational within a few days. There’s a deadline for paying back their debts, which prompts daddy to push Chappie from the nest and into the slums of Johannesburg to grow up faster.
The main problem with Chappie seems to lie within casting Die Antwoord in such prominent roles. The film starts out as a story about Deon attempting to create life but quickly turns to focus on these clowns. They’re fine for occasional comedic banter, but they were ill-equipped to bear the brunt of the lead roles. Deon’s relationship with his A.I. infant was the more interesting and emotional story, but that was diluted with all the other pieces Blomkamp attempted to fit into this film.
To make matters worse, the supporting characters don’t skirt far away from their cliches. Sigourney Weaver, an icon of the science-fiction movie genre, plays the CEO of the weapons company. Though she manages a team of engineers, she seems to have no interest or knowledge in her products whatsoever, as long as they continue to make money. She feels for her employees, but mainly because she wants them to be happy, and supporting them will make them happy. Hugh Jackman plays one of these subordinates. His chino shorts, white tube socks, mullet, egotistical drive to be the best, and his general out-of-dateness has us wondering how this character became an engineer in the first place. He thinks making A.I. is playing God, and his hot-headedness leads him to perform all manner of unethical acts, including threatening Deon with an unloaded gun in the middle of his office. And yet he still manages to keep his job after that.
While Elysium seemed to crumble under the weight of the various story arcs and side characters, Chappie is Blomkamp’s sloppiest worst to date. The concept is there, but it faltered, perhaps by over ambition. Blomkamp clearly has a lot to say and he’s eager to say them, but the way he says them have not come to together the majority of the time. After three attempts with only one real success (District 9), perhaps it’s time for him to try another path.