Deon Wilson: Dev Patel
Yolandi: Yo-Landi Visser
Yankie America: Jose Pablo Cantillo
Vincent Moore: Hugh Jackman
Michelle Bradley: Sigourney Weaver
Hippo: Brandon Auret
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for violence, language and brief nudity).
I’ve always been of the belief that expectation is an enemy of art. It closes off the mind to possibilities the artist may have envisioned that the viewer may not if they’re anticipating something else. As such, I’ve become pretty good at turning off the grand expectations movie studios are so insistent on instilling in their audiences through trailers and the buzz movie media outlets provide before a movie’s release. It’s not that I don’t pay attention to these things, because I am a fan first and a critic second; but once I’m there in the dark awaiting the start of a movie I let it all go and simply take in the movie.
That being said, I’d like to talk about the expectations behind the new science fiction movie “Chappie” a little before I delve into my expectationless opinion of it. This is the third movie by South African sci-fi wunderkind Neill Blomkamp. His debut film “District 9” was a summer sleeper hit and a rare science fiction Best Picture Oscar nominee. His follow-up “Elysium” was not as special—although I felt it was enjoyable—and recently Blomkamp has revealed some disappointments he had with that project.
Now, he comes out with “Chappie”, easily the worst titled of his films so far. The problems with its cutesy title—a name shared by its main character—are twofold. First of all, it tells nothing of the subject matter of the movie. The titles of his first two films don’t give much in terms of subject matter hints either, but they do give an impression of something that has to do with the plots. “Chappie” for all we know could be the newest Muppet in Jim Henson Productions’ arsenal, when in fact the word “arsenal” might give a better hint of the subject matter of Blomkamp’s rather innocent sounding film title. Its second problem is that its title and main character’s name actually betrays the film’s serious subject matter by adding a childish element to it.
The reason the expectations created by the title of the film are important in this case are because the film suffers from the very problems the expectations create. While it wants to be about the very serious matter of weaponizing an artificial intelligence, it can’t escape the childlike qualities inherent—not just in its title—but in its plot as a whole. It seems Blomkamp has felt the need to rehash a well-explored premise about A.I. in film—that of the unpredictable nature of an intelligent creation that can be utilized as a weapon—and applied too much logic to it. He’s realized that such an entity would first see the world as a child before it matured; but it would be a weapon from the outset.
It’s actually quite an intriguing argument Blomkamp sets upon, and he does so with meticulousness. He feels out the likelihood of such an event occurring by taking us back to Johannesburg—the setting of “District 9”—in another near future where crime has gotten out of control. The police deploy a robot force that is effective in decreasing the crime rate. The designer of these police droids, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has also created an A.I. that he tries to convince the manufacturer’s president (Sigourney Weaver) to allow him to develop. As a weapons manufacturer, she has little interest in a robot that can learn to paint and write poetry.
Meanwhile, a band of thieves hatch a plan for a big score, which involves kidnapping the designer and holding him for ransom. They enact their plan just as Deon is stealing a robot scheduled for destruction in which to upload his A.I. program. The thieves decide the robot is more valuable and Deon agrees to let them have it as long as they let him teach it. The reason the robot was scheduled for destruction is because its battery has become fused to its chassis and will run out of power within a week. This puts our heroes into a time constraint and introduces the concept of mortality to the A.I. adding additional learning material in the process.
Ninja and his girlfriend Yolandi Visser—apparently two real life Johannesburg personalities playing versions of themselves—lead the thieves and become surrogate parents to the robot. It is Yolandi who comes up with the unfortunate name Chappie. So now, along with the concept of rearing the A.I. as a child to begin with, Blomkamp has also introduced the idea of nurture versus nature by providing two oddball criminals as Chappie’s major environmental and nurturing influences. So now we have what is essentially a weapon behaving as a child and being reared by a strange sappy woman and a tattooed brute who wants to raise an original gangsta. The results are an awkward clash of a cartoonish juvenile take on the thug life with heartstrings. While Sharlto Copely does a great job capturing the gait of a child in his motion capture work, it just stands to show how awkward it is to combine the childlike elements of the character with his gangsta posturing.
I haven’t yet mentioned the subplot involving Hugh Jackman as another testosterone counterpoint to Deon’s notions of the poet A.I. Jackman’s Vincent Moore is a competing designer in the same company trying to sell the police force on his human controlled design for an urban assault droid. This plotline brings too many “Robocop” parallels into the film, making it seem even more like Blomkamp is just rehashing previously attempted plot points from other movies. This storyline also culminates in an explosion driven climax that draws focus away from his more lofty thematic elements.