In 2008 Neill Blomkamp was tapped by Peter Jackson to direct a Halo movie – which excited many – but when that fell through he was given money to produce his own pet project District 9 – a film that beautifully blended science fiction with apartheid – and though that film went on to be a critical and financial success it now looks like Blomkamp could be just a one hit wonder as he is breaking speed records on his journey from critical darling to walking punchline. So today we will look at his latest film Chappie – which deals with the heady subject of artificial intelligence – but sadly will not use any intelligence of its own.
In the year 2016 Johannesburg, South Africa has turned into the Old Detroit of Robocop fame – with its crime rate soaring – and the only option the government has is to buy a shit ton of robot police with Peter Weller’s voice. The wunderkind behind these robotic police officers is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who, though a brilliant engineer and programmer, is a moron in every other respect. He works for Tetravaal, a weapons manufacturer run by CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), and though most of the world seems rather impressed by these state-of-the-art armour-plated attack robots Deon believes there’s room for improvement. You see, he’s been tinkering with a more advanced A.I. in his spare time, and when he finally cracks it he goes to his boss and explains how he can turn her army of killing machines into painters and poets.
Strangely enough the CEO of a weapons manufacturer doesn’t see the upside in having robots with emotions and opinions, or the ability to write poetry, and she turns down his proposal to test it on a damaged robot. This leaves him no option other than to steal a damaged bot and the “guard key” that allows one to reprogram them. Now, a little bit about this “guard key” thingamajig. The idea of someone hacking these lethal robots is terrifying – criminals with this army of robots would be quite bad – so Tetravaal created a bulletproof system that only allows them to update software on the robots, and only someone with top security clearance has access to the “guard key” chip that allows reprogramming. So of course Deon is one such lucky individual. And just how top shelf is this company’s security system? Well after stealing it all Deon gets is a call from security saying if he doesn’t bring it back they’ll tell on him. Yep, that is some bulletproof system.
Not everyone at Tetravaal loves Deon and his work, because before these police robots called Scouts were designed there was a bigger, badder brother in the works called MOOSE – a robot with no A.I. but relies on a human interface which its designer – and its creator Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) believes this is a more humane solution than having autonomous killing machines running around. In most movies this guy would be the hero, standing up against the company on the moral high ground, but that is not this movie. Moore here is portrayed as an evil ex-military jackass who is jealous of the Scout program, and he will do anything to take down Deon and his Scouts. Sadly it will be a long two hours before we get to see that final showdown.
Enter this movie’s gang of lovable misfits; Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a trio of drug dealers that owe 20 million rand to a more powerful gangster called Hippo (Brandon Auret). To get this money they decide to pull off a major heist – but to do so within a city full of these Scout robots is suicide – thus they come up with the brilliant plan of kidnapping Deon so that he can switch off the Scouts.
What this group lacks in brains they make up in extreme luckiness. They kidnap Deon just as he’s leaving Tetravaal with the stolen droid and “guard key” and they are able to force him to patch up the broken bot and reprogram it with his new improved A.I. system, all this so that they can train it to be a gangster. They then let Deon go – but only after they promise to let him come back and help teach the newly named Chappie – and I’ll give you a second to let your mind wrap around that piece of stupidity.
So this gang of drug dealers kidnap a man so they can pull of a heist without robot interference, and then they let him go because there’s no way he’d just immediately run to the authorities, and bring a rain of fiery death on them. Strangely enough he doesn’t go to the police, instead he continues to return to this gang in the hopes of teaching Chappie to not be a gangsta. The level of stupidity this movie reaches at this point is stratospheric, and yet that isn’t even the most annoying thing about this scene as the birth of this new A.I. is one huge storytelling WTF. For some reason Deon created an A.I. that when switched on would know as much as a newborn baby. Chappie cannot even understand English – did that bit of coding cost extra – and I can see no logical reason for writing an A.I. that has no built in language subroutines. It’s just moronic, and this is all so we can have scenes of a skittish robot hiding under a table where it has to be coaxed out by three criminals, and its idiot creator.
The bulk of the rest of the movie is the tug-of-war between Ninja’s need to turn Chappie into a badass killing machine and Deon’s desire for the exact opposite. Which once again begs the question, “Why hasn’t Ninja shot Deon in the face?” Well for some reason Yolandi’s maternal instincts have gone into overdrive as she becomes Chappie’s mommy, so she’s cool with Deon stopping by to teach her little robot boy to do arts and crafts. Deon does manage to get Chappie to promise not to commit crimes – once again a thing that is in complete opposition to Ninja’s goals – but that only means we have to sit through painful scenes of Ninja tricking the idiot robot into committing crimes, all of which could have been avoided if they’d shot Deon in the face at the outset.
Meanwhile Vincent is still pissed that his funding for MOOSE is getting cut, and he starts to get suspicious of Deon when he notices him looking up on the internet on how to teach babies to speak. The movie continues to hit us over the head with how dumb it would be to create an A.I. with no rudimentary knowledge, and Chappie doesn’t even have Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. If Deon had at least done that much he wouldn’t have had to worry about Ninja turning his creation into a super criminal, and this is the key problem with the script, for as each scene unfolds we are constantly questioning the logic behind the characters actions, but there are none. The only reasoning behind anything that goes on in this movie is because it was “in the script” and there is no other reason. Vincent’s brilliant plan of stealing the “guard key” from Chappie – so he can shut down all of the Scout droids – and thus throwing the city into chaos so that his MOOSE robot can ride in and save the day, is just plain stupid. Two minutes of computer forensics would have landed him in jail. Worse is that Deon discovers what Vincent has done and instead of informing the authorities, or even his boss, he runs off to handle it himself.
The film tries for a little drama with the fact that Chappie’s battery life is only good for five days – and for some reason his advanced A.I. cannot be just swapped over into a new body – but because I have only found Chappie to be a completely annoying and senseless character – wishing him to power down ever moment he is one screen – there is no suspense here. The solution – and surprise ending – that Neill Blomkamp comes up with isn’t just vastly insulting of the audience’s intelligence, it’s not even structurally satisfying.
I will give the film credit for having some decent effects work here – the opening sequences of the Scout droids taking out criminal after criminal looks just great – and it’s not as dull as the Robocop remake, but unfortunately the treacly performance by Sharlto Copley as Chappie makes one appreciate the motion capture work of Andy Serkis all the more. This is a painfully bad movie, and such a waste of resources that should have been put towards a better script, instead we got something that comes across as some sort of lame Short Circuit remake.
Note: The film’s tagline is “Humanity’s last hope isn’t human.” That’s a great line but makes no bloody sense in context with this film, humanity is not in danger at any point in this movie, unless street gangs in Johannesburg are a bigger threat than I imagined.