A futuristic robot, with advanced artificial intelligence, discovers the true nature of mankind in Neil Blomkamp’s thought-provoking story, Chappie. Despite a promising beginning, the film fails to sustain its lofty ambitions.
In a not-too-distant future, crime has spiraled out of control, putting law enforcement officials in dangerous peril. An innovative engineer, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has created a crime-fighting droid, that has become a successful deterrent for baddies. Designed with a titanium body and programmed to assist and fight crime, droids have become the rage for local law enforcement, making company CEO, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) rich in the process.
While Deon is a rising star, his engineer rival, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is one unhappy camper. Deon’s drones have become money-makers, while his bulky, larger drone, Moose, has been relegated to the background. Determined to shine like new money in Bradley’s eyes, Vincent begins looking for an opening to take his proud rival down.
As he continues to collect accolades for his droids, Deon has larger aspirations. Working night and day on creating a device that will enable his droids to think and experience life like humans, he completes his research but just needs a subject. He gets the chance when one of his droids, 22, is critically-damaged and targeted for destruction after a violent firefight. After being denied the chance to test his creation by Bradley, Deon saves 22 from the scrap heap and is homeward bound to test his life’s work.
But before Deon can boot up his project, he is abducted by a gang of greedy thugs, led by Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones) and his girlfriend, Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and henchman, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who see the former “robocop” as their ticket to pull off a major heist. Their plans run contrary to Deon’s desire to see this “feeling” droid as the next step in evolution. The conflict between the two factions is at the root of the now-rechristened “Chappie’s” (Sharlto Copley) development and confusion.
Blomkamp’s story fuses together themes previously explored in film such as Short Circuit, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and I, Robot. The idea of a robot that can feel is not new but Blomkamp’s story does have intriguing possibilities. It just doesn’t set up a clash of class between Chappie’s maker, Deon, but explores his criminal caretakers, who only value Chappie for what he can do for them, never understanding just how special he is. Much like his earlier film, District 9, Chappie is also a metaphor about race, with the “black sheep” droid’s experience doubling as a story of an outsider or person of color.
In earlier versions of this story, the robot/droid generally is reared in a comfortable, controlled environment that nurtures their gifts and gives them a foundation when they are thrust into the real world. From the moment that Chappie gains “consciousness” and comes into existence, on the surface he is a reject (which the sticker on helmet attest to). Possessing mismatched ears and a crushed torso, the only thing special about the droid is his abilities.
Instantly, his life is a unsteady rollercoaster of experiences and emotions, many that truly tug at the heartstrings. In a particularly difficult sequence, the trusting droid, with the understanding of a young child, is abandoned, assaulted and left on his own with no idea of why he was placed in such a state. Anyone who has ever been a parent will cringe at the scene, which is a harsh lesson on the inhumanity of mankind.
Despite possessing the ability to create (he picks up reading and painting, immediately), Ninja lessons consist of teaching him how to shoot guns, rob and walk cool (which equates to “Black”). While these scenes are irritating to watch, they provide a context on how bad influences can destroy. These scenes and others, hint at the vast potential of what Blomkamp’s story could be.
Based on Blomkamp’s 2004 short film, Tetra Vaal, Chappie ultimately fails, cinematically, because it is guilty of the forgivable sin of “overreaching.” More of a “thoughtful failure,” the film’s concept is tremendous, but Blomkamp’s Trancendence-esque elements truly undermines the story’s momentum and execution. A wonderful example of “what could have been,” in an attempt to raise the audience’s consciousness, Blomkamp instead falls victim to the axiom that sometimes “less truly is more.” It’s not just Chappie that suffers, but, unfortunately, the audience as well.