Unfortunately for him, he is captured by a trio of rebels long before he is able to exercise his discovery under more watchful eyes, and the result yields “Chappie,” a program that he downloads – against his personal judgment – into the remnants of a robotic droid previously deemed unusable after a lawless ambush. His captors are driven primarily by that all-too-familiar impulse that motivates criminals under the squeeze of higher authorities: they believe they can use the system against itself in a bid to pull off one last heist, especially as the threatening motives of others within the crime world put them under fatal deadlines. What they don’t count on is this particular discovery falling into their laps, and ultimately that becomes the platform on which Blomkamp and his ensemble of actors ponder the nature of being: namely, whether one’s identity is really conditioned by the environment they are raised in, or whether one seed of goodwill can really inform a myriad of contradictory behaviors.
The problem with that reasoning is that it isn’t exactly unique territory for this genre – yes, even in relation to the presence of artificial intelligence – and for the same director who made both “District 9” and “Elysium,” the underlying current doesn’t inspire nearly the same narrative possibilities. That would have been acceptable in a movie that had enough of a fresh spin to inspire it, but “Chappie” is too enthralled by the urgent rush of scenario to pause for the contemplation. It is one of those movies that reacts before it thinks, and rushes through the material so incessantly that it affords no time for the audience to ponder what it has just seen, or what it all means in a more grand scheme. And that’s unfortunate given the visionary impulses that Blomkamp has teased us with over the course of recent years; despite my reservations with the tone of “District 9” or the excessive action of “Elysium,” there is no denying the promise of his sensibilities, even as they play out in the fabric of cynical premises.
Towards the beginning, he at least seems to be on the right track. The film stars Dev Patel as Deon, a computer scientist riding the waves of success after his new invention – a robot that enforces the law under deadly criminal activity – is sold to the local police force and propels his parent company, Tetrivaal, towards immense success. The early scenes document this occurrence with rapid movement, and intercut media footage with interviews from observers close to the source – including Tetrivaal’s CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), who grins proudly at how lucrative this discovery has been for all involved. Others, like the suspicious Vincent (Hugh Jackman), do not share in the sentiment, and in initial dialogue exchanges there are distinct battle lines drawn: his distrust of A.I. fuels his work on a secret military weapon within the company’s high-tech base, and all while Deon is visibly confident that his inventions will be proceeded by the dawn of a new age of discovery. One gathers that this is a movie universe where the “Terminator” films have never been seen.
The plot gets rapidly under way when a group of rebels – Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika – come under attack from a crime figurehead who demands large amounts of money, and their prospects at finding it are narrowed based on the success of the police drones. Their solution: kidnap the architect of the droids and force him to turn them off. Their ambush, needless to say, occurs just as Deon whisks away the remains of a damage droid to experiment on, and his new discovery – a singular data file that allows for the development of a self-contained intelligence – is the only offer he has to his new captors. When the identity is launched in the shell of this robot, a simple creature emerges from the programming: without knowledge of experience, ready to absorb the information of his peers like a child ready to be coddled by parental figures. Unfortunately, limited exposure with his creator means that this innocent consciousness will be more directly exposed to the harsh realities of his criminal captors, even as Deon arms him with simple advice that informs his entire core: “never do anything illegal.”
A whole lot of predicaments follow Chappie around, not the least of which are three critical conflicts: 1) the education of social misfits who hide behind gunfire and violence to make their livings; 2) the prying eyes of Deon’s competitor Vincent, who discovers this being and intends to harvest his data in order to secretly undermine the effectiveness of the robotic police force; and 3) the acknowledgment that Chappie’s shell, damaged as it is, is only a few days away from running out of battery life (with no hope of recharge). The immediacy of these realities calls to mind the underlying current of “Elysium,” about a misfit infected with a virus that gives him only a few days to find a way onto a ship in order to acquire a cure. What is it about the element of time that fascinates Blomkamp in his pursuit for genuine suspense? One of the unwritten rules of thrillers is that our endurance is more rapidly tested by the concept of mortal limitations, and if a hero has only short stretches of time to find some level of perseverance, it adds a deep sense of tension to the narrative. If we ignore the fact that this all occurs to a machine programed to think it is a real being, then the implication is an effective one for the movie. It really does work.
On the other hand, little beyond that morsel of merit resonates here – not for the lack of trying or even showing conviction, mind you, but from the maddening pace at which all of the material is delivered. Somehow in the span of just two hours, Blomkamp manages to squeeze in not only a robotic identity’s entire adult evolution, but an endless series of scenes that double back, indicate shifts in narrative direction and often lead to dead ends or illogical payoffs. While some will find that consistent within the frame of reference of the director’s previous endeavors, it does not work for a movie in which we are expected to buy into far-fetched probabilities that require more pondering. Steven Spielberg thought more perceptively about such things in “A.I.”, about a robotic boy who was programmed to feel and sense emotions. By contrast, “Chappie” seems to be using the premise for more action-oriented setups that undercut the meaning of his thoughts, and the screenplay ransacks the details in scene after scene of nonstop fighting, confrontations, explosions and chases that add nothing profound to the concept.
What is his intent, really? To show us that the worlds he depicts in his movies are made so based on generations of lost innocence? Or is he more deeply motivated by the chaos of human nature, and how easily it corrupts us? Three endeavors later, he seems to be just as weary of the formula as we are bored by it. And yet there is no denying his energy level on screen, either; the action scenes are loud and ambitious, and photographed in a manner that emphasizes the strength of how his characters choreograph themselves in the midst of visual chaos. Little of it makes sense, really – why is the main villain of the movie shirtless and always being fired at with guns, for instance, but never actually takes a bullet? – and it all leads to a climax so over-the-top that we are left shaking our heads in befuddled wonder. But hey, you’ve got to hand it to him in one regard: he has certainly given this robotic consciousness one hell of a ride as an entry point into this world of human nonsense. By the end, though, one even wonders if Chappie will be too exhausted by the outcome to care what comes next.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/ Sci-Fi/Thriller (US); 2015; Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity; Running Time: 120 Minutes
Dev Patel: Deon Wilson
Hugh Jackman: Vincent Moore
Sharlto Copley: Chappie
Yo-Landi Visser: Yolandi
Jose Pablo Cantillo: Amerika
Sigourney Weaver: Michelle Bradley
Produced by James Bitonti, Victoria Burkhart, Simon Kinberg and Ben Waisbren; Directed by Neill Blomkamp; Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell