Over the course of three films, Neill Blomkamp has demonstrated a consistent interest in the body and the effects of the world upon it. “District 9” featured transformation into the undesirable while “Elysium” highlighted the inscription of class divisions onto the body. Chappie continues this conceit but with a reversal of Blomkamp’s debut — rather than a human becoming alien, what happens if a robot becomes a person?
This question has occupied science fiction at least since “Metropolis,” receiving in-depth attention in such films as “Blade Runner” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” as well as more recently in “Ex Machina.” Blomkamp is unsubtle but highly effective in garnering sympathy for the eponymous robot, a decommissioned police droid given experimental consciousness by his maker, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). In the title role, Sharlto Copley, rendered through performance capture, is never less than endearing, an innocent referred to by adoptive parents Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Ninja (Ninja) as a “child”. From his initial trepidation at encountering people, to his imitation of television images, to his terror over weapons and violence and teenage-like frustration and anger, Chappie is a constantly engaging screen presence. This is quite remarkable because his body is clearly inorganic — he is explicitly a machine with a speaker for a mouth and a digital display for eyes. Yet Chappie’s physical movements are unmistakably human, including their development from awkward to cocksure to responsible. Similarly, Copley’s electronically altered voice develops from curious to enraptured to assertive, ensuring that the viewer goes with Chappie on his journey of discovery. This journey includes bodily suffering over the course of the film, in sequences that frame the suffering as injuries to a person rather than damage to a machine. These sequences increase the viewer’s empathy with Chappie, helping to reinforce the film as a character drama about a person growing up, who just happens to be a robot. As an exploration of non-human embodiment, the film is hard to fault.
Not that Chappie is without faults. Much like “District 9,” Blomkamp throws a great many things at the screen but, unlike “District 9,” a lot of it fails to stick. The central premise of human police officers being supplemented by robots is interesting and inevitably reminiscent of “Robocop,” but the film does not explore the political ramifications of privatizing law enforcement nor the philosophical implications of machines replacing humans. Furthermore, glaring plot holes distract from the narrative. The arms manufacturer Tetravaal manufactures and supplies robots to the Johannesburg police, but military applications are never mentioned for this corporation that also appears to have the worst security in the world. Walking in and out of the factories with vital equipment happens with frustrating frequency, when a little bit more care in the writing could have provided tense set pieces or amusing banter. The sociological detail of social groups is also uneven — the contrast between street criminals Yolandi and Ninja and the professional Deon, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) and Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) could have been explored in more depth. As it is, the extreme “gangsta” attitudes are sometimes jarring to the point of annoyance. While Deon and Yolandi and Ninja all try to teach Chappie in their own way, the contrasts between their ideologies are presented crudely and rather heavy-handedly. Even more irritating is local gang lord Hippo (Brandon Auret), whose lines are, mystifyingly, subtitled despite being comprehensible, and bellowed with bluster that is more annoying than menacing. More exploration of the Johannesburg criminal sub-culture, perhaps with a touch of restraint, would have allowed for an exploration of class divisions and how this relates to law enforcement, consumerism and globalization. While these elements are hinted at, they are left frustratingly under-developed.
The film could also make more of the contrast between Deon and Vincent. It is refreshing to see Jackman playing against type as a ruthless bully, but his zealous pushing of the MOOSE — his own project for mechanized law enforcement — is never explained in depth. At several points Vincent demonstrates religious fervor, describing Chappie as a “godless monster” and crossing himself before major decisions. The issues raised by the creation of life will be familiar to viewers of “Blade Runner” and “Ex Machina,” but in Chappie they are only mentioned, which is again unfortunate because they are fascinating and have great dramatic potential. By creating an artificial consciousness, has Deon effectively become a god? If so, is Vincent more outraged at him for this blasphemy or simply jealous because he wants his own idea to be approved? Rather than dwelling on these questions, Chappie surges ahead to show the AI consciousness in action through Chappie’s development. On one level, this does propel the story and ensures that Chappie is a sympathetic character. But it largely neglects ambiguity about Chappie’s identity. The film seems content that he is a person, treated like a person by those who are in the right (Deon, Yolandi, Ninja) and as a machine by those who are wrong (Vincent). So human is Chappie that the viewer is left in little doubt as to his personhood, leaving this interesting area unexplored.
Not that this avoidance makes Chappie uninteresting, as Blomkamp demonstrates again his credentials as an action director with a number of visceral and emotionally effective set pieces. Death and violence are painful and bloody, with little of the sanitization that can neuter films of this sort. Again, this shows impact upon the body, whether it be made of metal and wiring or flesh and blood. Emotional connections between characters are also convincing, especially the relationship between Ninja and Yolandi who make a sweet if unorthodox couple. And while events of the epilogue are rather rushed, further interesting questions are raised that do receive the ambiguity lacking around Chappie himself. Blomkamp’s film fails to deliver on all of its promise, but when it does deliver it is satisfying both emotionally and intellectually.