There has been no shortage of films focusing on the advent of A.I. recently, from Ex Machina released in January to the hotly-anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron which will be released at the end of April. Somewhere in the middle sits Chappie, the third directorial outing from South African director Neill Blomkamp, best known for directing the Oscar-nominated sci-fi hit District 9. Set once again in Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg, Chappie is the imaging of a not distant future where a robot police force has taken over control of the crime-ridden city to great success. Amidst this is a rejected robot reloaded with an artificial intelligence programme which gives him the ability to think, feel, and learn. Intended as the pet project of the A.I’s creator, ‘Chappie’ is actually adopted by a group of gangsters who intend to use him to carry out a heist so they can repay an associate who looks like Riff Raff on steroids. As they try to teach Chappie to be “original gangster number one”, hilarity, destruction and heartache ensues.
On the positive side the film features solid performances from key cast members, notably Yolandi Visser (of rave-rap duo Die Antwoord fame) as Chappie’s surrogate mother and Dev Patel as the boy-genius creator of the police robots and Chappie. Also starring are Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman, the latter of whom sports a mullet and has a great time playing the unhinged ex-SAS rival to Patel, an engineer who hates AI and champions his own creation of super-robots operated by humans via mind control, but in honesty does little to add to the film’s plot. Chappie himself is voiced by Blomkamp’s good friend Sharlto Copley, who does an excellent job of conveying the robot’s childlike innocence and providing humour at various junctures. In addition the film is largely soundtracked by Die Antwoord’s music, which makes sense considering they’re a large part of the film and could feel self-indulgent, but actually gives the film a bit of energy and compliments the overall chaotic vibe Blomkamp seems to be aiming for.
But those are the positives. Much like Blomkamp’s last film Elysium Chappie proves to be over-ambitious, setting out with the best intentions and a decent concept that ultimately falls flat, perhaps because the film tries to do too much with its premise or simply because it asks the audience to invest in a plot that becomes gradually more ridiculous as it goes on. This isn’t to say that Chappie doesn’t have its charms, particularly the robot himself who in his naivety and innate trust of the world is a refreshing change from the evil AI that tends to grace our screens, and the scenes between Chappie and Yolandi Visser are some of the film’s best. Audiences will fall in love with Blomkamp’s AI creation, but not the film itself.
That’s the real problem; if Blomkamp had edited his script a little and focused more on the relationship between humanity and technology, he could have made a much more interesting film about human nature, which is what he achieved so well in the plot of District 9. Chappie has so much going for it, but just fails to make the kind of impact that it deserves.
Images: Columbia Pictures