I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Chappie, from District 9 director, Neill Blomkamp, but it certainly wasn’t what I got out of it. It’s an enticing mixture of the classic and the modern, playing with a variety of time-honoured science fiction concepts but thrown into a heady contemporary setting in a near future Johannesburg.
Early scenes can’t fail to conjure up memories of RoboCop, with crime running wild in South Africa and a weapons corporation, Tetravaal, selling armed robots to the police force to deal with it. They even have a couple of very different designs, the human-sized Scouts and the bulky and horribly beweaponed Moose, which raise obvious comparisons to RoboCop and the ED-209. The only differences are minor: there’s no human being inside the scout suit and instead of the beast being pitched first and failing, so prompting the more realistic alternative, here the realistic alternative goes first. With the scouts doing great work, taking down thirty large scale crime rings in a year, the cops don’t want the clear overkill of the Moose.
Fortunately, this quickly grows beyond RoboCop and I had a blast with the first half of Chappie.
I liked the realism at Tetravaal, which is a far cry from the yuppies and fat cats of RoboCop’s OCP. Deon Wilson, lead developer of the Scout program, and Vincent Moore, who has the same role for the Moose program, sit in standard cubes in the same aisle of an office. They run Linux with a spot on screensaver and software that doesn’t look like it escaped from the Enterprise. Scouts are modular, so if one part is damaged, they can simply replace it and sent the scout back out to work.
I liked the realism in the streets. When the cops arrive to take down heavily armed crooks, the scouts go in first, guns blazing, and the human cops follow, using them as shields. People get hurt. So do scouts, with 0022, who has already been repaired once in this film, getting hit by a rocket and thrown through a wall. It isn’t repairable, with its battery fused to the chassis, so it’s written off as scrap with a believable reject sticker.
I liked the realism in Deon Wilson, who lives his work. After leaving his robotics job at the office, he gets home to be greeted by a few home robotics projects in a down to earth version of J F Sebastian in Blade Runner, then gets to work on his pet project of a conscious artificial intelligence. When he nails it, after 945 days, he blisters in to talk it up to his boss, who rejects it out of hand. Why would a publicly traded weapons manufacturer go for an AI that can judge art, write poetry and enjoy music?
And, while it’s an odd form of realism, I adored the choice of bad guys. Instead of cookie cutter villains, we’re given Ninja and Yo-Landi from the zef group, Die Antwoord. I’m not a fan, but I have a great deal of respect for their integrity and they bring something utterly unique to this film. I’ve never seen a bad guy with a yellow machine gun before, or a pink punching bag for that matter. Odd hair. Weird tattoos. Pastel colours. Why the heck not? It’s better than the usual criminal mastermind with a suave British accent. The third in their gang, Amerika, is a little more traditional, but that works to ground the other two.
Where the story takes us isn’t too surprising. Deon salvages 0022 from the reject pile to take home and upload his new AI into. After Yo-Landi figures that the guy who created the scouts must have some sort of remote control to switch them off, she and Ninja kidnap him and end up with 0022 for good measure. So Deon gets his shot but under the scrutiny of criminals rather than his company, as he can’t call the cops about them stealing what he stole to begin with.
And here’s where the old school concepts start to rear their heads. 0022 wakes up, but as a child. He’s a baby who learns quickly but still needs to be trained. I loved how Deon is totally in the zone as he gives his creation a rubber chicken and he’s not happy when Yo-Landi names it Chappie. By the way, Sharlto Copley is superb as Chappie the sentient police robot, even if he didn’t provide its movements through motion capture, making him a very believable child. He doesn’t just channel kids, he channels childlike adults such as Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man and he steals the show without ever appearing on screen.
So we have the whole robot coming alive concept. Chappie is written wonderfully, grabbing little bits of information and connecting the dots between them as best he can. He makes leaps that make sense to him but may well be completely wrong.
We have the moral angle, with Chappie’s promise to Deon that he won’t commit any crimes working as a simplistic version of Asimov’s laws of robotics. However, as a child, Chappie is easy to deceive, so we’re given scenes of Chappie stealing cars because he thinks he’s merely returning them to daddy. He won’t take part in the heist that will save them, because that’s a crime, but when it’s all explained to him in a different way, he gladly helps out. It’s not merely abuse on the part of this gang of crooks, it’s abuse that the victim doesn’t even know is happening.
We have the question of how to define consciousness. ‘That’s it!’ Chappie says at one point, looking at a digital copy of his neural map, ‘That’s me!’ And after the definition of consciousness, there’s the definition of death. ‘Just a temporary body, mummy. I’ll make you a new one,’ is a glorious line that resonates through its childlike innocence.
In between consciousness and death is the will to live. Chappie’s battery being fused to his chassis is a built-in death sentence; he has five days before it’ll run dry and it apparently can’t be replaced. So this creation learns about birth one day and has to deal with death only four days later. That’s a tough life and it raises a number of other concerns like self worth, sacrifice and moral prioritisation.
All these are explored pretty well, though the technological side does take a lot of shortcuts. This is the near future. I can buy the concept of uploading an entire mind into a machine but I can’t buy that it can be dumped onto a single thumbdrive or transferred in ten seconds. Clearly, serious breakthroughs were made in storage and networking technologies, but they didn’t trickle down to anything else except this. Nah, don’t buy it.
The Moose is an interesting creation. It might look like ED-209 but there’s no brain inside; it’s controlled by a human being via neural transmission, making it like an insanely flexible drone. There are plenty of issues to explore there but they’re rejected in favour of turning Hugh Jackman into a cheap villain set up by an obvious line to do ridiculous things. He clearly enjoyed it and used a few opportunities to his best advantage, but he’s a waste of a character introduced only because of cheap writing.
Similarly Sigourney Weaver is wasted as an inconsequential CEO who gets a few strong scenes early on but soon fades into nothingness. What’s worse, the company she runs does the same thing: it walks the walk in the opening scenes but soon becomes a mess of plotholes masquerading as security holes.
Fortunately Dev Patel is given a better role, playing Deon Wilson as a sort of benign Victor Frankenstein. Chappie calls him Maker but connects to him through the emotions of a very dangerous child. Sadly, it’s not the role it could have been. Then again, with so many concepts in play, some had to be prioritised and this was clearly one that wasn’t. He’s mostly a foil for Ninja because, while Deon wants him to paint, Ninja wants him to walk cool and shoot guns like a gangsta.
I adored Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature, District 9, and clearly should revisit it again. I haven’t seen his second, Elysium, which I should check out soon. This one is a great film for a while, a good film in many respects but ultimately a disappointment because it doesn’t have the courage to finish what it started. ~~ Hal C F Astell