It’s weird seeing tropes associated with American blockbusters in a movie by Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9. He’s dialled it down a bit since Elysium, but there’s still a definite more-is-better approach to the storytelling that sort of detracts from the overall experience. Instead of taking the time to contemplate the implications of trans-humanism (as in District 9) or what it means to have consciousness, Chappie generally opts for (admittedly breathtaking) shoot-outs and big robot brawls.”
Dev Patel does his usual flustered but eminently capable young man routine as Chappie’s determined if a little meek creator. Hugh Jackman is perfect as the macho, roided-out bully who terrorizes Patel in an effort to get some recognition for his own robot creation – the Moose. Die Antwoord do their best but they’re not actors. Sharlto Copley, as usual, is the standout. He plays Chappie so convincingly that most of the time a CGI robot is the most authentically human character on the screen.
The movie is really at its best when it focuses on the burgeoning A.I. at the centre of its story. Great sci-fi is all about holding a mirror to our deeply flawed society and forcing us to stare at the ugliness. It’s about showing us our world through the eyes of an outsider, and showing how vicious and uncompromising we can be. Blomkamp and his crew really do a good job of portraying Chappie’s exponential growth from adorable youngster to troubled but precocious adolescent – right through to his awakening. It all comes together towards the end; the broad thematic ideas and weak dialogue finding focus and direction – in much the same way Chappie himself does.
The only problems come when Blomkamp also tries to include not only an industrial espionage subplot, but an overarching political agenda with broad statements about police states, the moral implications of drone warfare and the usual, pervasive anti-corporate sentiment. But it’s just a little too heavy handed. For example, the police bots go offline suddenly and within minutes (literally, just a matter of minutes) there is open warfare across the city of Johannesburg? Chappie really does find its feet at the end, but only if you’re willing to accept some extreme (and sometimes literal) deus ex machina.
Chappie the robot is perfect. His story is compelling to its core, and it raises some fascinating questions about the nature of consciousness – even if it does gloss over them fairly quickly (Blomkamp likes to tell his stories in a hurry). Chappie the movie, though, is as deeply flawed as the world it depicts, sometimes condensing very real and interesting ideas into brief, contrived exposition rather than slow itself down enough to allow the audience time to absorb the inarguably gripping content.