With Chappie, Neill Blomkamp is making a feature-length film spun out from one of his earlier shorts films Tetra Vaal (2004). What Blomkamp is setting out to do seemed highly promising. He is using performance capture animation to bring the title character to life, which offered the fascinating ideas of the incorporation of machine and human-like movements. Stories about the awakening of artificial intelligence and/or the coming to life of robots and androids are rich in possibility. There have been too many bad handlings think of Demon Seed (1977), Galaxina (1980), Electric Dreams (1984), Short Circuit (1986), Bicentennial Man (1999), I, Robot (2004), Delete (2013), Transcendence (2014), Morgan (2016) and numerous B-budget android action films of the 1990s and not that many good ones to choose from The Questor Tapes (1974), several of the Data episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), A.I. (2001), the recent likes of Her (2013), The Machine (2013), Automata (2014) and tvs Westworld (2016 ). It seems a thematic field rich in untapped possibilities. Certainly, this was something that Ex Machina (2015), debuting only a month after this, managed to do to superb perfection.
I am really not sure at what point Chappie started to go wrong. Part of it I think rests in the approach of Neill Blomkamp. I fall short of someone calling him the Great White Hope of Science-Fiction cinema. As I have stated before, his work seems to fall somewhere between James Cameron and Michael Bay. Blomkamp has Camerons great humanist visions and fascination with credibly detailed technology if Cameron were to retire, I am sure Blomkamp would be first at the door to take up his throne. On the other hand, both District 9 and Elysium suffer from having well set up initial scenarios, strong and interesting ideas but lose it when it comes to their third act. Blomkamp seems to either hurry through his ideas, to be trying to cram too many things together (as here) or reaches a third act with no idea where to take the story, by which point when he invariably goes for the Michael Bay and starts shooting and blowing everything up. Blomkamp publicly apologised for Elysium not having come off in the script department; I am not sure then what his excuse will be for repeating the same mistake with Chappie.
Chappie starts out with the interesting idea of taking a variant on Short Circuit the childlike robot awakening to consciousness and tossing it into the hyper-militarised near-fascistic police state of RoboCop (1987). This is a potentially interesting idea but one that suffers from Blomkamp having too much happening in the film. Did the film, as well as being a work about the birth of a sentient machine, also need to be a big shoot-em-up film about petty hoods, as well as a work about corporate rivalry? It results in elements often being twisted out of shape or credibility to serve plotting ends. The notion of mind upload, for instance, which would be an extraordinary technical discovery, is introduced in about two minutes of screen time and then becomes a major last minute element that miraculously saves the day (seemingly involving magical technology that allows the scanning of what would be untold petabytes of data from a human mind and its transference into a robot body within the couple of minutes or so it takes security forces to cut through a door. Oh and did I also mention that this is the first time such a process is being tested out and is miraculously bug free?). Or else improbable design elements in machines no off switches, permanently on batteries that exist solely for plotting convenience where, if for a moment there had been common-sense design, much of the plot would have been over in five minutes. You cannot also help but think as the robots skip off into the sunset together at the climax that this would be a happy ending that lasted about as long as it took Tetravaal to find and deactivate them using the tracking chips that all the other robots have built in.
The idea of a robot coming to life is a fascinating one. We have some great scenes where Chappie starts learning, even doing things like beginning to paint. However, Blomkamp also has action elements going on and very quickly, the story about Chappie coming to sentience is co-opted by comically ridiculous scenes with the hoodlums turning him into a gangster, teaching him how to use weapons and conducting car-jackings. These get a laugh from the audience but really as a serious A.I. story, it is down around the level of the comic inanity of Short Circuit 2 (1988). Mind you, the credibility started leaking out of the film about the time that Blomkamp thought it was a good idea to have Dev Patel using a rubber chicken as a teaching tool.
Much of the film feels as though Neill Blomkamp simply hasnt sat and thought things through. People do things for stupid reasons. You have what may well be some of the stupidest criminals in existence whose improbable plan to earn back 20 million (presumably rands) involves taking a robot that has just become sentient and has the mind of a child and training it to become a gangster within seven days and then using it to jack a large number of cars to buy the explosives they need to then conduct an armoured car heist. And then when they have this sentient robot partially in their control, what do they do but take it into the middle of nowhere and abandon it to be beaten to scrap metal by a group of petty thugs?
And then we come to Tetravaal, which may well be one of the most incompetent corporations on record. There is one all-important activation key for the robots and no back-ups, which Dev Patel seems free to steal without any security procedures. And then there is Hugh Jackmans character who seems to have the freedom to openly carry a sidearm in an office environment I am not sure if this is standard behaviour for Johannesburg, which given some of the things regarding South African gun culture that came out during the Oscar Pistorious trial might be something that is regarded as the norm. Moreover, he is able to pull his weapon on Dev Patel and threaten him in full view of his co-workers without attracting any disciplinary action. (In the US, you would imagine that something like that would end up with SWAT teams cordoning the building off within five minutes and Jackman arrested, if not outrightly shot by a trigger-happy cop). Later, in order to advance his own designs, Jackman sabotages the robots by accessing the central network and sending a command to delete each robots control file. Again this goes back to people in the film behaving in stupid ways for the convenience of the plot is Jackman so utterly oblivious to consequences that he does not realise that this would also reduce an entire city to anarchy? Is Tetravaaal so incompetent that they have no backups or system restore procedures in place for the robots? Or that they dont have password and log-in procedures that would allow them to work out who had accessed the system and deleted the files either that or is Hugh Jackman such a bungling systems designer that he does not realise that each of his logins would be recorded and time stamped?
Weta Workshop and the various visual effects houses do an amazing job bringing Chappie to life. It is almost a case of the character being far superior to the film that surrounds it. Blomkamp gives us some great scenes with an abandoned Chappie patting dogs, learning to paint, sitting in bed having childrens stories read by Yo-landi and so forth. This also vies with the stupid the scenes of Chappie carjacking and the climactic scenes with it throwing Hugh Jackman around while telling him off in a petulant South African accent Youre a verry bed men. The great disappointment of the film is that Neill Blomkamp seems more interested in cartoonish action scenes than he does in exploring the underlying issues and ideas of the film. He again films in South Africa but where District 9 held a bitingly potent examination of racial and social tensions in the country, and where Elysium similarly took on social inequality, Chappie seems devoid of any social message-making. Personally, I would be disturbed living in a society that has such a heavily militarised police force (and moreover, one readily willing to engage in massive armed combat within urban areas) I mean, imagine recent incidents of police overkill like Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner and the NYPD, which notedly occurred only with ordinarily armed police, and imagine that amplified by giving the police the capacity to raze an entire city block. RoboCop dealt with these issues in a satiric way indeed, Blomkamp seems to be homaging RoboCop in having Hugh Jackmans design for The Moose closely resemble the Ed209s but such a social future strangely remains in a void.
The other irritation is how the film skates over the issues of Artificial Intelligence. Blomkamp seems to assume that a newly awakened robot would be no different to a child or an animal. This is often reflected in Sharlto Copleys motion-capture performance. But is that really the way a sentient machine would behave? Would it have natural fear instincts that would make it cower from threat or reach up to shade its face with its hands? Chappie seems highly imitative of human behaviour and I have no problem with this but would this mean that it would develop a moral sense by the end of the film would the preservation of human life be anything more than programming priorities to it? Would it be able to abstract from this to be able to get angry at people it perceives as having stolen daddys cars? In that the friendships and family connections we make in the real world come from our brains triggering tiny feelgood chemicals every time we see someone we care about, would a machine that lacks such chemical responses be able to form similar reactions and feel things towards people it regards as its creator, or mommy and daddy? These are fascinating issues that a screenplay that dug deeper into its issues might have dealt with. Instead, all that we get a pimped-out, car-jacking version of Short Circuits No. 5.