The sci-fi genre has become quite engrossed in films about artificial intelligence in the past year, but despite this, Chappie does a good job of standing out from the crowd. It’s big, brash and not very beautiful – and that’s why it works. While it may not be as good director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, it’s certainly better than his other effort, the clunky Elysium.
Set in Johannesburg in the very near future, robot police droids have successfully reduced crime levels in the city. One of the lead designers of these bots is Deon, who has secretly been working on a way for robots to develop consciousness. When he succeeds, he steals a droid about to be destroyed with the intent of testing his new project out. Unfortunately for him, he himself is kidnapped by a trio of gangsters who owe a lot of money to an angry, bizarrely subtitled crime lord. The trio force Deon to boot up the robot, viewing it as a chance to make a lot of money. And so, Chappie is born. With the intelligence of a baby, Chappie learns the hard way about life for a sentient robot.
Chappie himself is rather hard not to love. As he stumbles through his first few days of existence, the viewer would be hard-pressed not to feel some sympathy for the robot. The film doesn’t bother explaining how and why Chappie is the way he is, it wants you to accept it and enjoy the journey.
The decision to cast Die Antwoord’s odd-ball duo of Ninja and Yolandi Visser as the main characters may strike some as a silly gimmick, but both do a good job in giving Chappie some authenticity. They provide laughs and, compared to other characters, give some heart to the film. Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman are given side-roles, but it’s hard to see what – if anything – they add. You feel sorry for Jackman, given a thankless task as Deon’s anti-AI work colleague. Although central to the plot, the role is very one-dimensional.
The film falters in other areas too. The characters occasionally have to force out some shockingly poor dialogue, and you get the sense that Blomkamp doesn’t actually know what kind of film he wants to make. There are moments when Chappie questions his own existence and why he was brought into the world, and you think this is where the film will go – but it’s followed by some B-movie action sequences which can be quite jarring. Too often, characters are guilty of over-explaining their actions, as if to question the viewer’s intelligence. The bizarre decision to include subtitles when certain South African characters speak is very out-of-place and completely unnecessary – especially when two of the lead actors are South African too.
Essentially, Chappie is almost like a comedy Robocop and overall, it works well enough. Viewed as a light-hearted piece about a baby robot learning what it takes to be in Die Antwoord makes it all worthwhile.