MOVIE REVIEW: Chappie
"CHAPPIE"-- 1 STAR
Back in the summer of 2011, in this website's toddler second year of existence, I drew up an editorial list of my top ten movie robots and their lessons. The rankings are filled with robots that made lasting impacts as characters and presences in noteworthy film classics. Each were created with a clear purpose in mind to serve their story and succeeded in that purpose. Altogether, those top robots had distinct and memorable qualities that resonated beyond the movie experience. Their uniqueness was their clincher.
The title robot at the center of "Chappie," the latest science fiction film from Neill Blomkamp ("District 9" and "Elysium") lacks in all of those statements about the best movie robots of all time. Both the film and the robot lack impact, presence, purpose, distinction, and, worst of all, uniqueness. It's a shame too because there were some intriguing "big ideas" floating around in "Chappie" that could have developed into something that had the chance to be impactful, purposeful, distinct, unique, and resonating.
"Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel gets top billing as your central human character Deon Wilson. He is a successful robotic engineer working for Tetravaal, a weapons manufacturing company working in Johannesburg, South Africa. The city's crime rate has been out of control for years and the human police force is constantly outmatched. You know it must be bad because Anderson Cooper is reporting about it on CNN (shameless cameo).
Under the business leadership of Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), Deon develops a groundbreaking "Scout" robot design that is highly programmed and trained for police activity, security, and safety. The city officials sign on with Tetravaal's initiative and the Scout force quickly begins to greatly reduce and eliminate small and large scale crime. The Scouts' success draws jealously and envy from Vincent Moore (played by Hugh Jackman), a former solider and competing robot designer who has his own large and powerful "Moose" design that runs on a neural link via a live human operator. Bradley rebuffs Moore's imploring for funding and action in favor of the sentient simplicity and cost-effectiveness of the Scouts. Deon, in the meantime, has improved his work even greater.
Through his new permutations, Deon believes that he has theoretically cracked the programming to create legitimate consciousness and artificial intelligence that could enable his robots to think, create, and, even feel. Before he can test his new programming on a defunct and rejected Scout model, Deon is kidnapped by Ninja, Yolandi, and Yankie (played by South African rapper Ninja, South African vocalist Yolandi Visser, and "The Walking Dead" American Jose Pablo Cantillo), a trio of lowly gang thugs who think he has the answer for shutting down the robotic police force. Bargaining for this life, Deon convinces the three that he can make a learning robot that works for them. From there, Chappie is born (voiced by Blomkamp muse Sharlto Copley) and he learns the world through Ninja, Yolandi, Yankie, and Deon. His remarkable level of emotion, talent, and reasoning prove Deon's theory right, but not before Vincent sniffs out what Deon is up to, which threatens everything Tetravaal is built on..
More than the robot learning his way, the movie "Chappie" itself is even worse about not knowing what it is or what it wants to be. Don't let the cute children's blocks and jive hipness in the lobby poster fool you. This is not a family fun. It thinks it's a high concept science fiction film, but then becomes the uninspired butt of its own "Robocop" and "Short Circuit" jokes and comparisons. It can't shake that knock-off feeling and stink. Even the mock documentary intro, the news media lens framing, and the frequent surveillance point-of-view cinematography of "Chappie" all come across like a weak retread of Blomkamp's own superior work in "District 9."
What's worse is the storytelling, which should be able to make up for the regurgitated visual feel but doesn't. "Chappie" is grossly out of balance. Outside of Patel, Blomkamp does little to make the human characters compelling and the whole tone is jarringly off. We should have seen this coming in the trailers. Its first trailer went the nearly-"WALL-E"-cute route, while the second one gave away more and touted the brawny action. The movie plays out just as unevenly. The gear-switching the film tries from sentimental to violent is too rough and miscalculated. It thinks it can turn on the heartwarming switch one minute, but then pounds you to death the next minute with loud, messy, and bullet-riddled noise. Speaking of noise, this is, by far, the worst film score the great Hans Zimmer has ever mailed in. It is incoherently terrible and dialed way too loud.
"Chappie" needed to pick a gear and stick with it because it can't be both without the knock-off comparisons and imbalance. You can't put a gun in the hands of a "Short Circuit" Johnny 5 knock-off in a movie operating in a South African "Robocop" setting and get both effects. With a different approach or deeper mythos, this could have worked. Instead of diving intelligently into possible commentary on police action, the implications of artificial intelligence, and quantifiable human consciousness, "Chappie" settles for gunfights and deaths no one is going to care about. The energy and thought is there, but misused. It made me miss the days of Paul Verhoeven who knew how to infuse sharp social commentary into fantasy or pulp films. "Chappie" had that kind of chance, planted seeds and all, to say something stronger and more purposeful, but fails like a Roomba stuck underneath a coffee table.
LESSON #1: THE CAUTIONARY POSSIBILITIES OF ROBOT TECHNOLOGY-- Let it be known that all of these lessons are where the movie tried to go, but didn't punctuate with depth. What will be written will be stronger than the sense you'll get from the film. "Chappie" isn't the first movie to operate on that now-cliched and predictable story loop where robots start out as helpful to mankind but then end up being outmatched, obsolete, dangerous, or misunderstood. We've seen "I, Robot" and dozens others. "Chappie" has its attempted take on this cautionary tale.
LESSON #2: THE CAPABILITIES OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE-- Once again, this isn't the first science film to foray through this lesson and ideal either. From the moment a science fiction film introduces artificial intelligence designed to match that of us humans, you're going to get the initial wonders of what that breakthrough means and then the inevitable step where the machines start to exceed the men. Short of Haley Joel Osment in "A.I." and the late Robin Williams in "Bicentennial Man," the Chappie character here gets that same treatment where people begin to assign humanity to something not human thanks to the learned intelligence and development of emotions.
LESSON #3: IS CONSCIOUSNESS QUANTIFIABLE?-- Lesson #2 segues to this final question that is partially posed by "Chappie." The main learned and created artificial intelligence at work for this robot is consciousness. Chappie feels that he exists, could continue to exist outside of his body, and challenges the notion that maybe man can do the same. Does that count as a robot having a soul or spirit? Can you upload or create such a thing? By contrast, could we quantify our own consciousness as humans? Could be put a value or measure to our consciousness? Is it chemical, emotional, or both? Could download it, so to speak, or replicate it to put somewhere else? The film unsuccessfully tries to pose these "big idea" questions, but they're still there to think about and digest as food for thought.