“Chappie” is a recent science fiction film directed by Neill Blomkamp, who has forayed into the genre several times before. With films like “District 9” and “Elysium” on his docket, Blomkamp attempted to reach the accolades of the former with “Chappie.” The film, ultimately, lacks a cohesive and driving story, and contributes poor character development to an already lacking formula. The one and only plus in this is Chappie himself, voiced by Sharlto Copley, and what he represents and who he ultimately becomes. There develops a sense of care for the artificially intelligent robot, as we watch his consciousness grow exponentially, from his infancy to adulthood.
In the near future in South Africa, a police force of robots called Scouts, developed and distributed by a robotics company named Tetravaal, aids authorities in cracking down on crime in the area. When a large drug deal is busted by the robot force, one falls victim to an RPG fired by Hippo (Brandon Auret), leader of the drug ring. This Scout, codenamed number 022, is set to be destroyed, as his battery is beyond repair, until the maker of these robots, Deon (Dev Patel), attempts to upload an artificial intelligence program he developed into it as a test. Thus, Chappie is born, but not before he and Deon are kidnapped by three drug dealers—Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo)—who owe Hippo money. When Chappie comes to life, he is of infant intelligence, and has to be taught much like a human would. From there, we see the development of Chappie and how those around him influence his way of being.
The more interesting part about this main plot is the fact that Chappie is so moldable, willing to pick up whatever those around him teach. He is able to feel and understand things in a way the original Scouts do not, and has a lack of self-consciousness that gives him much more depth than any human character has. That is also the major problem with the film, as the human side is just so poorly represented, any thread of care failing to blossom. There also exists a side plot which manages to distract from Chappie’s development, as Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), another robotics creator, attempts to obtain funding for his own line of heavily armed, thought controlled robots called Moose. His ideas are shot down, as Tetravaal head Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) denies him the opportunity. This sets up a rivalry between Vincent and Deon that doesn’t really go anywhere, as, again, no care develops.
“Chappie” does make an attempt, and a successful one, of inciting thought into its theme. First off, in a film focused on robots and artificial intelligence, and in an age where technological advances come and go as new advances update just about every year, we see a focus on the detriment of those advances. Is advancement progressive when it is wielded by the wrong people? Or can advancement be bad all on its own? “Chappie” combines elements of these questions from similar robotics films, and can be likened to “I, Robot” or the recent Oscar winning animated film, “Big Hero 6.” But what “Chappie” offers that is different than those films is its namesake character.
Chappie learns and grows and begins to care for life and those around him. He develops an intelligence that supersedes a humans’, and turns consciousness into a state of being who he individually is. He sees the flaws in humanity, but also understands that humans made who he is. When watching this all unfold, it begs the question of nature versus nurture. Is Chappie’s being a result of who he was, or who he was created as being? Does he do bad or good because of the outside influences, or is that inherently imbedded into his nature? Those questions and the thought behind their incitement are, at the core, the best part of the film.
Overall, “Chappie” is a miss in terms of a complete cinematic experience. It’s an odd combination of elements that don’t necessarily mesh within the genre and feel of the film. There’s music that seems suited for a teenage party flick (the South African band Die Antwoord—consisting of two of the film’s drug dealer characters—backing most of the montages), visuals reminiscent of an action behemoth, and tender moments that could have worked if fleshed out within a much better plot, with characters that we care about. Aside from what Yolandi becomes to Chappie, there’s no real connection between anyone on screen, so aside from the thought the film provokes, it also elicits the question of “so what?” to be asked. In the end, the one saving grace, as is perhaps fitting, is the film’s namesake. Chappie the character delivers, but unfortunately, “Chappie” the film malfunctions.
Final grade? B-