I love that there has been so much science fiction at the movies these past few years, but thanks to the studios, these have become increasingly unoriginal – reboots, sequels and remakes are pretty standard these days.
So Chappie already has a leg up on most of its fellows – director Neill Blomkamp (who also directed District 9 and Elysium) presents us with a story about a sentient AI, but rather than getting caught up in moral and scientific conceits, takes the approach of: what if an AI was just like a human? Instead of a murderous, super intelligent AI, what about one that just wanted to be with its family and live?
Chappie is set in the near future in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, in the crime-heavy city of Johannesburg. Weapons company Tetravaal have created police “scouts”, robots that can aid human police in law enforcement – their titanium bodies mean they can take on criminals better than human police. Their lead developer Deon (Dev Patel) is a genius, and in his spare time works on creating real artificial intelligence, capable of learning, growing and even creating art. He steals a damaged scout marked for destruction and successfully uploads the programming in, but Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley) is hijacked by criminals (Die Antwoord members Ninja and Yolandi Visser) who want to use him to commit crimes.
There are a lot of moving pieces in Chappie – Chappie as the quickly developing, childish AI who loves his family and doesn’t want to hurt others or die, Deon who wants to nurture and encourage Chappie to his full potential, Yolandi as the “mommy” and Ninja, who simply wants to use Chappie for financial gain. There are also other players – Deon’s vicious colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman) whose Moose project hasn’t received the same acclaim as Deon’s, and various other criminals, as well as appearances from Sigourney Weaver as the CEO of Tetravaal.
Vincent becomes Deon’s nemesis, and probably deliberately, is a caricature of the strong, white, Australian male image – he speaks with Australian slang, wears shorts and even has a mullet. He’s also very religious, which is at direct odds with many of his actions. His motivations are clear but he is mostly drawn in broad strokes. Hugh Jackman is perfect for the role – as such an affable fellow in real life, his bloodthirsty, asshole character is jarring in the best way.
Narratively, the events are tied together quite loosely – random happenstance and circumstance serves to propel the plot forwards at times, which can come across as a little contrived at points. There are many ideas which are briefly examined and then thrown aside in favour of keeping up the frenetic pace of the film. Luckily, the visual effects are strong – there are plenty of explosions and the robots come off as real and physical rather than otherworldy, which is nice.
Still, Chappie‘s strength is in its emotional centre, and the relationships and connections that develop between people (and robots). It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there is enough levity to lighten the heavier concepts that are present throughout the film.
I’m not sure if the filmmakers intended it to be so, but the use of robots in police work, and later, the Moose (essentially a tank that can walk, fly and is remotely controlled), strikes parallels with the increased militarisation of the police in places like America, as demonstrated in Ferguson and other police responses to protests. There is a lack of humanity present, in which other human lives are treated with contempt. This kind of social commentary feels real and
As for actual science fiction, the most scientific this film goes is to ponder the concept of consciousness, and whether the soul is linked to the body. Rather than shying away from the idea of being able to transfer your consciousness and soul to a new body, Chappie treats the concept like a fairytale, eschewing all the handwringing and science and instead, revelling in the beautiful idea of being able to live forever.