Review by Erick Barrientos
Living in a world where the majority of major film releases are sequels, adaptations, gritty reboots and the like, it’s nice to have some original fare coming our way. We got an original original sci-fi epic in Jupiter Ascending that, despite its flaws, is a huge deal in the aforementioned world that sorely lacks original stories. Currently, Neill Blomkamp is on the forefront of original sci-fi movies, after having surprised everyone with his 2009 debut District 9, and is continuing to write and direct original science fiction films to share with the world. Though 2013’s Elysium had a great concept that, in execution, missed its mark —something even Blomkamp admitted in an interview with UPROXX — it was still an original story. Blomkamp looks to continue his trend with CHAPPiE and though he and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell’s core story really finds a way to connect you with the main characters emotionally, the film suffers from lack of character development and subplots that are either connected by thin, frayed threads or none at all.
CHAPPiE is based off of Blomkamp’s 2004 short film, and first directorial effort, Tetra Vaal, which depicts the “what if” of a Johannesburg, South Africa inhabited by an autonomous robot police officer. Blomkamp and Tatchell took this idea and spun it into CHAPPiE. When Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), engineer and creator of the police attack robots, finishes developing an artificial intelligence (A.I.) software, he presents it to his boss and Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) to gain permission to test it out on a robot that has been decommissioned and is scheduled to be destroyed. She denies him this opportunity, so he decides to take matters into his own hands and thus Chappie is “born.”
The core story of the film involves a struggle for the fate of Chappie. Deon wants teach Chappie to be good and test the limits of his AI program but gets caught in the middle of a gang dispute, where gang members Ninja, Yo-landi and America want to teach Chappie to fight for them and help them settle a debt. To make matters worse, Deon’s coworker Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), already peeved that his human-controlled attack robot, MOOSE, has seen nowhere near the success of Deon’s attack robots, discovers what Deon has created and is out to see Chappie destroyed. Meanwhile, several subplots attempt to take form and everything is essentially all over the place for the rest of the movie, but I’ll get to that.
In the places where CHAPPiE succeeds, the film does a really great job of doing so. The film benefits from an extremely talented cast where even major film newcomers Watkin Tudor “Ninja” Jones and Anri “Yo-landi Visser” du Toit, of South African rap group Die Antwoord, make their marks playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Blomkamp film regular Sharlto Copley provided the motion capture and voice for Chappie and is easily the best part of this film.
Everything about how these characters are trying to “raise” Chappie is very emotional. Deon is the creator, but Yo-landi and Ninja become “mommy” and “daddy.” Chappie begins his sentience as a “baby” but receives conflicting lessons from Deon, who wants to see him used for good, and Ninja, who wants to use him for violence and personal gain. There are some very heavy moments in the film that involve the “young” Chappie. This dichotomous relationship weighs heavy on his new consciousness and, despite being a robot, he begins to feel happiness, sadness, joy, confusion, etc, and we witness these things in very real ways. You may feel like you could be detached from the situation because Chappie is a robot, but the way the interactions are handled, he might as well be a human character. In fact, he is a very human character. It’s a very realistic representation of how a robot with AI would be handled if fallen into the wrong hands while the right ones tried to pull it back. You get both ends of the spectrum happening at the same time and it’s very effective.
Visually, the film looks great with fantastic special effects and CGI. The robots' look comes across as real and the use of mo cap for Chappie definitely made all the difference in his motions, especially since he acts more human than robot. The action sequences are also executed very well. Things can move quick but nothing ever seems too frantic nor is anything too over the top. Even when the action begins to reach that threshold, it seems justified. The representation of how the robots are utilized is very logical which lends to it’s believability. It’s a realistic representation of how a robotic police force would be used and how effective it would be. Unfortunately, most of these things are bogged down by a disjointed script.
Where CHAPPiE suffers is in its writing. Though the core story succeeds in its goal, it is derailed by too many moving parts. The subplot that brings Deon and Chappie together with the gangsters has to do with Ninja and Yo-landi settling a debt with the gang leader. Not much about the leader is revealed other than he’s upset over the loss of millions of dollars worth of drugs. Though his character isn’t so important that lacking any major sort of backstory for him isn’t too distracting, we still do kind of wonder who he is and why he is so influential. However, this pales in comparison to how much of a distraction everything involving Tetravaal is.
Despite these fantastic actors being cast, Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman’s talents are underutilized with extremely underwritten characters. The stories between Deon and each character, respectively, are very surface. We know that Vincent is jealous because Deon’s robots are succeeding and his robot is not, but none of the extreme measures he takes in order to stop Deon’s success are that justified, especially when they attempt to give Vincent this religious background that we never really learn anything about it. It’s an important character detail underdeveloped and cast aside. All we know about Bradley is that she heads up Tetravaal and makes all the calls. Every interaction we get between her and Deon is made up of short conversations that are conveniently placed to move the story along.
But the biggest issue the film suffers from is Tetravaal’s apparent and total lack of a security infrastructure. The characters can just enter what should be high-security areas where things such as powerful weaponry, explosives, and literally the ONLY USB security key that can be used to make changes to the police bots’ firmware, and exit taking with them any of these things without anyone even batting an eye. Why do they not have someone who looks at the logs and then asks why an engineer needed to access these areas? Oh, wait, they do. Early on in the film, Deon has taken the security key to upload his AI software to Chappie and is then unable to retrieve the key. How does Tetravaal handle this? With a friendly phone call to Deon informing him that the key has been missing for some time and he was the last one to log it out. He just says something like “I have it, I’m sorry. I’ll return it tomorrow.” And that’s that. The upsetting thing about this is the fact that it could have easily been explained or at the very least justified with simple “engineers are allowed to access these areas because insert valid reason here”, but Blomkamp and Tatchell instead wrote into the script this sort of underlying deus ex machina so the story could move along smoothly without having to clutter it with unnecessary details such as why a big weapons corporation would have extremely tight security. It is a very frustrating, apparent and obvious oversight that comes up in the film enough to become very distracting. It’s unfortunate.
I really, really wanted to love CHAPPiE the way I love District 9, and I did. I loved the character of Chappie. I loved his interactions with those trying to “raise” him, the conflict between what Deon wanted and what Ninja wanted for him, and his adorable, almost heartbreaking relationship with Yo-landi as she’s caught in the middle of Chappie’s nurturing. However, I did not love this movie. I walked away enamored by Sharlto Copley’s performance but once that feeling faded away, I realized what I had seen was a pretty well built machine that seemed promising until you turned it on and realized the manufacturer left a wrench caught in the gears. You will love Chappie the robot, but you will, unfortunately, probably not feel the same about CHAPPiE.