Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is far from perfect. However, the parts it gets right make it hard to care.
Modern day Johannesburg is employing robotic police forces that, while keeping levels of crime down, are creating an unrest within the human community. Expert programmer, boy genius, and creator of the bots, Deon (Dev Patel) discovers how to program artificial intelligence in one of the droids, only to be told by boss Sigourney Weaver, that it’s not necessary for the kind of work the machines are doing. Undettered, Deon steals parts of a broken bot to experiment the AI technology on, outside of the weapons manufacturer. Unbeknownst to him, two thugs Ninja and Yolandi (yes, played by Ninja and Yolandi Visser of hip-hop group Die Antwoord) have hatched a plan to kidnap him in order to find a way to “turn off’ the robot cops. Instead, Deon tells them they can have the broken bot with the AI programming for five days, since that’s how long it has left to function.
He is born, named “Chappie,” and raised by these criminals with the occasional visits from Deon, still intent on “culturing” him. But he attains a real consciousness in a way that Deon’s rival Vincent’s (Hugh Jackman) creation, The Moose, never could be. An alternative to the droids, the Moose is lumbering and militaristic, a physical manifestation of Vincent’s hubris and obsoleteness. Blomkamp mediates on humanity, consciousness, and morality amidst a backdrop of poverty, crime, and near dystopic scenery. But he withholds any sweeping, preaching, gestures. Ultimately, Yolandi is a loving mother, and the real villain of the piece is Vincent, an overzealous, ex-military meathead, who becomes the comic book rogue so jealous he’s willing to sabotage his own colleague.
Again, it’s not perfect. There are too many villains and there’s no real moral at work. There is no solution. Both Deon and Vincent are relatively flat characters, naive and intellectual in the former, brutish and psychotic in the latter. And yet, the idea that a robot could be born and raised by Die Antwoord is a brilliant variation on what could be, a tired theme. Their imperfections (and outfits!) distract from what could be a heavy-handed analysis of what constitutes humanity. And truthfully, the whole thing is so fun that the audience can’t hold it to a much higher standard than that. It’s not trying to be The Tree of Life, it’s trying to be Chappie.
Chappie opens in Philly area theaters today.