Bottom Line Up-Front: Most of the critics are wrong about Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie. While not as good as I remember District 9, it is better than Elysium. However, it is NOT what you expect from these stars, nor from the advertisements, and I think that is what is bringing its scores down so low. This is a pretty good AI sci-fi action flick, but it subverts so many of your pre-conceptions, many end up disliking it. I enjoyed it and it would be well worth a matinee and/or rental, though probably not a purchase on Blu-Ray.
SPOILERS ABOUND: Chappie is set in Johannesburg, South Africa in the near future. Jo’burg is overridden with violent crime and drug activity, so much so that the police force is heavily militarized, and the environment supports some drastic measures. In comes Tetravaal, a tech company who has perfected an autonomous police robot to support the human cops. They have a functional AI, but they are not “alive” or self-aware. Within a few short months, the Scout droids designed and overseen by Dev Patel’s Deon have turned the crime situation around and everything is looking rosy for Jo’burg — as long as you’re not a gangster or a rival in the company with an alternative police droid. Enter our first antagonist, Hugh Jackman’s Vincent, playing a fairly monomaniacal villain against his usual type. His alternative robot, a HEAVILY armed and armored remotely-piloted ED-209-ish droid called The Moose, is the prime alternative to the Scout, but the Scout design is doing so well, Sigourney Weaver’s Michelle — Vincent and Deon’s boss — won’t spend company funds on his ugly and overpowered drone. He thus hates Deon and consistently menaces him and looks for a way to undercut the Scout program. Deon himself has grand plans far beyond the Scout program. His true goal is a full artificial intelligence, a machine consciousness that can appreciate and employ abstract thought for art, music, and everything. The problem is, Michelle doesn’t see any upside for the company for a more fully rounded AI, making Deon a victim of his own success.
Now enter the two big “problems” with Chappie: our actual protagonists. You see, Deon, Vincent, and Michelle only bookend the story and provide the framework for the plot. The actual protagonists are three craven, stupid, drugged-out gangsters in the form of rap-rave duo Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-landi (going by their actual stage names here) and Jose Cantillo’s Amerika. They enter the story because they screwed up and wind up owing a brutal thug, Brandon Auret’s Hippo, around 20 million Rand (about $1.6 million) after a bad drug heist and Hippo gives them 7 days to come up with it. The problem is, the Scouts have made it a lot harder to pull off deals or heists of that size, so they’re all gonna die. Yo-landi, however, figures it would be easy to pull off a heist if they turned off the Scouts, hypothesizing that they probably have a remote control somewhere that can do the trick (she apparently had just seen The Phantom Menace or Avengers). They see Deon’s picture in the paper and decide to kidnap him.
Deon makes a breakthrough and successfully compiles a conscious AI, but given Michelle’s reluctance, he decides to go behind her back and install it in a very unlucky Scout, Unit 022, which has been wrecked so many times its battery is fused to its chassis and cannot be changed or re-charged. He steals the busted Scout, the encrypted guard-key to change its program, and his prototype AI. As luck would have it, though, the gangsters choose that moment to car-jack him. At their hideout, he convinces them there is no remote to kill the Scouts. Amerika sees the busted Scout and figures it is the next best thing and orders Deon to program it to help them pull off a heist. Not wanting to die, and desperate to see his creation live, he brings the Scout online with the new program. Dubbed Chappie by Yo-landi, the infant-like droid is nothing like Ninja wants and he threatens to kill Deon if he can’t make it perform. Deon promises to come back and get Chappie working better. They let him go and Yo-landi, Amerika, and Chappie bond while Ninja seethes and plans.
This is both the most enjoyable section of the movie and the most frustrating. It is fascinating to see Chappie “grow” and try to reconcile Deon’s brief admonishment to only do good and not commit any crimes with the trio’s reality of nothing but crime. Nature vs. nurture. Chappie won’t kill, but they convince him it’s okay to poke holes in people and help them go to sleep. Chappie won’t steal, but when Ninja tells him the rich people on the street are driving cars that they stole from his Daddy and Mommy (Ninja and Yo-landi), he becomes quite adept at carjacking. Chappie wants to do good, but Ninja explains to him that if he wants to live beyond the week he has due to his bad battery, he has to fight and help them carry off the heist. Chappie is innocent, but he is also crafted into a dangerous gangster because of the environment he is exposed to, the reality of their “normal” lives, and his own desperate situation in the face of all the abhorrent treatment he receives at the hands of humans.
In the third act, Vincent re-emerges after scuttling the Scout program and out-ing Chappie to Michelle, who gives him free reign to bring down the rogue robot with his own monstrosity. Pyrotechnics ensue and everything collides very satisfactorily. But then comes the 4th act and finale no one is talking about, where many thought the movie goes off the rails. I won’t give it away here, but I did think it followed with Chappie’s situation and the actions he takes on his own to survive, and it served to make the question of AI more profound.
NON-SPOILERISH DISCUSSION: This movie is not what you expect going in. Hugh Jackman is a monomaniacal, former special forces type desperate to succeed with his own project at any cost. He is not one-dimensional, but he isn’t a well-rounded hero either. Sigourney Weaver is DEFINITELY not a Ripley-type. She has a fairly small role as a timid, second-guessing, cover-your-own-ass corporate bureaucrat. Neither is what you expect from these actors and knowing what they are capable of in other films may leave you wanting more. But that’s not this movie. Neil Blomkamp’s films involve dark-dark-dark antagonists and extremely flawed protagonists in a dirty, messy, petty world. It was that way in District 9, in Elysium, and now in Chappie. This movie is not Robocop, Short Circuit (1 or 2), Pinocchio, Oliver Twist, District 9, or AI, though it carries elements of them all. Of course, if you have to name five or more movies that a story has common elements with, that doesn’t say derivative to me, that says it is an original story informed by what came before. The special effects are great. I believed in Chappie as a real thing, and I found his journey through life believable, even if it isn’t the good robot discovers how to be good sort of story many seem to want. The plot goes places you aren’t expecting, but I found it a fun and interesting journey. Do the characters make poor choices? Yes, but guess what? Life is often defined by poor, not well thought out choices.
And to address the biggest gripe of the movie: Die Antwoord. Many ping on their bad acting as the thing that kills the movie. Would I choose a pair of rappers to lead my film? No, but they are not as bad as people make out. I considered them to be members of a totally separate South African gangster sub-culture, so I just accepted their mannerisms and way of speech as true-ish elements of that culture. Was Yo-landi’s voice annoying? Maybe a little, but I didn’t notice it by the end. Was Ninja an asshole? Yes, but he’s supposed to be an asshole, and he had a satisfying arc by the end. Was Ninja an actual asshole on the set? I’m given to believe that he probably was and won’t be getting any more acting roles because of it in future, but his main detractor — the guy that played Hippo and complained about Ninja criticizing his acting — was so over the top and an actual bad actor, that I have to take his criticisms with a bag of salt.
Best is Sharlto Copley as Chappie. I loved his work and his growth here. Great job and nothing left to say.
For me, I’ll see it again when it goes digital and I may end up buying it. But don’t believe all the detractors that insist the movie match the movie they thought they’d be seeing. Go check it out.