A Battery of Gold
You might be forgiven for thinking that yet another film about robotics and AI couldn't help but feel a bit repetitive and over-familiar, following the plethora of movies on this topic. You might be forgiven for thinking that Neill Blomkamp's particular kind of socially-conscious, photorealistic-VFX-driven SF movie might equally be starting to lose its novelty value, given both District 9 and Elysium stuck reasonably closely to the same formula. You might even be forgiven for thinking that the only kind of genre movie coming out at this time of year would be the least ambitious and inventive kind. But I think you would be wrong, because Blomkamp's Chappie is none of these things.
The story is set in a (very) near future South Africa, where a soaring crime rate has led to the introduction of robotic police auxiliaries, designed by idealistic young scientist Deon (Dev Patel) and produced by the company of Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) – all this is rather to the chagrin of ex-military designer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), whose own heavy-duty robot drones have been somewhat sidelined as a result.
However, Deon has higher aspirations than corporate profits, and is quietly working on a project to create true artificial intelligence. Bradley, needless to say, can't see the benefit in a robot poet, or indeed any machine that can think for itself, and so Deon ends up having to install his AI in a junked chassis heading for the scrapheap.
Things get somewhat fraught as Deon and his project fall into the hands of a group of rather desperate gangsters looking for an edge against the robot police. A deal is struck where Deon is allowed to help educate the now-sentient droid, christened Chappie by his unlikely foster parents, in return for the gangsters being allowed to make use of it in an upcoming robbery. (Chappie is mo-capped and voiced by Blomkamp's regular collaborator Sharlto Copley.) But Vincent has also got wind of what Deon is up to, and has spied an opportunity to strike a blow against the whole programme, giving his own machine an opportunity to shine...
As mentioned, there seem to have been a lot of films on this sort of topic lately – we had Ex Machina out only a few weeks ago, after all. And Chappie, on the face of it, a pretty derivative piece of work, an action thriller very reminiscent of any version of RoboCop you care to mention, to some extent retreading Blomkamp's other films. I feel obliged to mention that Chappie has been the recipient of some rather mixed reviews, and I can sort of see why: the plotting is a little contrived in a number of places, and there's a distinct sense of the director battling to keep all the various plot strands under control as the story continues. The film does have a very rough-around-the-edges feel, which is perhaps increased by the decision to cast rappers in a couple of pivotal roles – their characters are named after their stage personae, which is an admittedly very odd decision, but in the final analysis both Anri du Toit and Watkin Tudor Jones give quite effective and even moving performances. (This is just as well, as they are probably rather more prominent in the film than the ostensible 'star names' of Weaver and Jackman.)
That said, the most eye-catching contribution is from Copley and the special-effects team, who together manage to make Chappie a remarkably affecting and human character. They are helped by a script which manages to wring a considerable amount of poignancy and humour from the scenario – in the final analysis, this is still essentially an SF action movie (and the director handles the heavy-duty hardware-based crash-bang-wallop with casual aplomb), but there is a lot of droll comedy along the way, together with some surprisingly moving moments. (All of it is driven along by a great retro-synth soundtrack from Hans Zimmer.)
All this means that when the film touches upon deeper and more serious concerns, it's as part of a story which already has you engrossed (if you're anything like me, at least), rather than one which just functions as some sort of abstract and cerebral meditation on a particular theme. At one point a distraught Chappie asks Deon why he chose to create him with a body which will inevitably fail, leading to his cessation as a conscious being, and what's previously been a sort of grimy roughneck action-comedy is suddenly considering humanity's relationship with God and the nature of mortality, and the shift in perspective is both dizzying and exhilarating. There's perhaps a touch of religion-bashing in the film, which is perhaps a little predictable, but set against this is the film's general philosophy that it's not your nature or your position in society that defines who you are, but the choices that you make: meeting and taking responsibility for Chappie leads to the redemption of a couple of characters who were initially unsympathetic scumbags, and this is convincingly done. The plot takes a sharp turn in the third act which perhaps strains credibility a bit, but not insuperably so.
In the end Chappie isn't just another film about AI, but one about what it means to be human, which is surely a more profound question. That it does so with some skill and subtlety within the framework of an extremely accomplished action thriller is a pretty neat trick. In many ways Blomkamp's adroit skipping between the different strands of drama, comedy, and action recalls District 9, and for me this is a more impressive film than Elysium, even if one wonders quite how long he can keep knocking out limitations on a relatively limited stylistic and narrative theme. But, of course, the release publicity for Chappie has been dominated by the news that Blomkamp and Weaver look set to work again on a new instalment in the Alien franchise: something which has a large number of people very excited indeed. I don't know. Yet more Alien sequels interest me about as much as the threatened string of annual Star Wars cash-ins, and I'd much rather directors like Neill Blomkamp were working on their own original projects. Chappie is by no means perfect, but it is still a proper SF movie with a lot going for it – I wish we had many more films like this.