I’ve concluded that one’s opinion on Chappie comes down almost entirely to their opinion on the titular robot. Charmed by or at least sympathetic to Sharlto Copley’s performance? Well, it won’t erase the film’s issues, but it goes a long way to casting a light on its emotional strengths. Feeling any degree of annoyance? Absolute death. There is no hope of salvaging your enjoyment of the film at that point. You might suspect, correctly, that I fall into the former camp, which still leaves us with the thorny net I’ve been working on for the past week: what exactly is it that makes this movie work?
The film starts in the Near Future where Blomkamp films generally live, where grungy everyday living has seeped into the fantastical speculative addition of the day, and everyone is quite nonplussed about the whole thing. In this case it’s sentient robot called Scouts, which now compromise most of the Johannesburg police force and have done a lot for taking down the crime rate. From there, we have two intertwining stories: gang members Yolandi, Ninja, and Amerika (the former two being members of Die Antwoord and playing themselves, a fact the story never really bothers commenting on or interacting with) have recently fucked up a product delivery and have one week to delivery $20 million to a powerful gangster; meanwhile, Scout creator Deon Wilson has created a program for full AI sentience, and steals a damaged Scout to test the program on. The gang intercepts Deon’s car and claim the robot with the idea of having their own private enforcer, only to wind up with a bright but inquisitive child and a quickly ticking clock on their necessary heist.
You may have noticed what a clusterfuck that summary is, and I haven’t even gotten into the subplot with Deon’s coworker, whose high-fire power, human controlled robot design was passed over in favor of the Scouts and whose seething resentment leads him to take increasingly illegal action (don’t ask why he doesn’t just approach the military, the film isn’t interested in answering you). Despite the two hour running time, the film still manages to feel stuffed to the gills – and most of the secondary ideas feel undercooked for it. All the usual markers of A Blomkamp film are present: an inhuman character too precious and good for this vicious world, a handful of selfish dickbags who will make good by the third act, talking news heads as a shorthand for worldbuilding, a villain whose inexplicable murder-boner can be seen from space, general sociopathy on the part of the human race, and One Big Idea from speculative fiction that the entire film revolves around interrogating emotionally and thematically. In this case it’s the Sentient Robot genre, with submusings on the ethics of creating life, the quantifiable nature of what makes a human being, and transhumanism relating to technology. And 90% of that comes down on Sharlto Copley’s (doing some Andy Serkis-worthy mocap in the titular role) CGI’d shoulders.
Enjoy an extra painful viewing experience, Tiger & Bunny fans
Copley carries that weight well, sometimes in spite of the script. The first half of the movie is almost unforgivably transparent in how manipulative it is. “Here is a cute, childlike robot on whom we have immediately stamped a temporary lifespan,” the film says. “We will now thrust him out into the Cruel Uncaring World to activate your emotional sensors, particularly by way of a deeply uncomfortable assault scene. Feel things, human.” The frenetic energy of the editing and punishing sound mix go a long way to furthering that feeling of being overwhelmed, and the main set piece of the gang’s hideout does great work in visually representing its own mix of childishness and violence that all the main characters, not just Chappie, share. And that’s the thing, really. By the time you start putting together that all five of our main protagonists are fumbling children in their own, ugly ways, the story starts working its way slowly out of the hole of emotional manipulation and into something that, on its own bizarre level, kind of gels together. In spite of the script’s bag-of-bricks-delivered-via-sledgehammer style, Chappie’s relationships with the rest of the main cast feel earned, and Copley scraps together an arc and depth of sufficient quality to make Chappie’s eventual existential grappling with mortality genuinely relatable and painful.
The thing about Blomkamp, when it comes to his theme of choice, is that what he lacks in subtlety he tends to make up for by twisting the trope in question and carrying it to further conclusions than another filmmaker might bother with (hence why District 9 is pretty much superior to the original Alien Nation in every way). In this case, his willingness to play all the cards on AI sentience make for a narrative mess but something of an emotional gutpunch. It stumbles, almost accidentally, into the realms of old school Star Trek: the idea that the universe is full of strange and wondrous things, and if we push hard enough in investigating it we might eventually reach a new plateau of understanding (you know, the ethos that JJ Abrams looked at and was like ‘nah’). And because it weaves those ideas through the underlying fears and affections of the characters, it keeps it relatively grounded – a safe port in the storm of that stupidly convoluted plot summary. Its transition from bleak to hopeful is bumpy in parts, but it’s the kind of movie I want to see more of, in truth: where science is a neutral tool and not an inherent evil time bomb, where acknowledgement of hardship and ugliness gives way to a real earnest hopefulness that doesn’t have to cloak itself under six layers of irony (not that I wouldn’t miss the irony if it were gone entirely – but a change of pace is a nice thing), and where Sharlto Copley keeps on getting acting jobs that showcase his genuine talents (seriously, the second that man moves on to greener pastures The Blomkamp Film is doomed).
And so here we are, tentatively positive and able to pull some real gems out of what otherwise might be (and has been) termed a trainwreck. I can’t rightly call it a good film or wholeheartedly endorse every reader here to rush out and see it – but if what it does well perks any of your vested interests, I can say it’ll be time well spent.
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