Chappie

March 14, 2015
Hugh Jackman in 'Chappie' (2015)
Hugh Jackman in 'Chappie' (2015)

Chappie is destined to divide its audience. A quick look at the Rotten Tomatoes site reveals a chasm between the critics’ approval rating of 28% and the audience score of 95%. I felt the same conflict within my own mind. I began by thinking it was one of the silliest films I’d seen in a long time, with characters that were absurd or simply irritating. Eventually, however, I succumbed to that absurdity.

Chappie may not be as convincing as director Neill Blomkamp’s debut effort, District 9 (2009), but it is a huge advance on Elysium, his turgid effort of 2013. Chappie is a science fiction story that raises a lot of questions. The fact that these questions have been well ventilated in earlier flicks doesn’t render this film superfluous.

One crucial aspect of Blomkamp’s movies is that they are provincial affairs. Chappie is not set in New York, or an imaginary metropolis, but in Johannesburg, one of the world’s most violent, crime-ridden cities not part of an actual war zone. It doesn’t require much imagination to push the current realities a little further, creating a scenario in which the city is at the mercy of bloodthirsty organised crime gangs.

The new, radical solution is the Scout, a highly mobile police robot, created by the Tetravaal Corporation. The chief designer of this robot is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who is the golden boy for company boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Deon’s next plan is to create a robot with full consciousness – one that can develop its own tastes, paint pictures and write poetry. Michelle says to drop the idea, but he carries on regardless.

The trouble begins when the computer whiz is carjacked by a group of desperate criminals who have to make a lot of money fast in order to pay their debt to a local warlord. Deon is forced to get a junked robot body up and running, by using his consciousness program. The result is a robot made from a damaged chassis that will only sustain a few days’ battery life, with the mind of a newborn child.

The chief criminals, played by South African rap stars Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja, take mixed roles in the robot’s upbringing. Ninja wants to train him to be a gangster, and instructs him on being cool. Yolandi is stirred by maternal impulses. She sees the new arrival as a “happy chappie”, and christens him accordingly. For the first day or two of his life as a sentient being, Chappie is subjected to violent confrontations and lavish mothering. He is more confused than someone who has just watched Inherent Vice.

Deon is determined not to let go of his creation, but he is being shadowed by Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a disaffected colleague who has seen his own robot project being sidelined by the success of the Scouts. It doesn’t take much to identify all the signs of a full-on psychopath in Vincent, and he lives up to expectations. While it is slightly implausible that a high-security company would employ someone so crazy, and allow him to carry a gun in a holster into the office, plausibility is not one of the major ambitions of this movie.

Jackman must have decided early on that his character was a joke, because he hams it up shamelessly. It seems that in South Africa a broad Australian accent is an obvious sign of a villain.

Depending on your tolerance for exaggerated cuteness, Chappie (voice of Sharlto Copley), will be delightful or unbearable. Most of the time I’m firmly in the anti-cute camp, but there’s something disarming about the humour in this film, which alternates with the most outrageous violence. I dropped my resistance when Chappie appears sitting up in bed, while “Mommy” Yolandi reads him a story.

Chappie is the most recent update of Frankenstein’s monster – a being who means well, but does evil because of maltreatment and misunderstanding. The difference is that Chappie is not a stitched-up quilt of reanimated flesh: he has a mechanical mind capable of processing vast amounts of information, coupled with the emotional needs of a growing child. Looming in the distance is the perennial teaser re. Artificial Intelligence: ‘Will an intelligent robot or computer eventually decide that humanity is an inferior, expendable species?’

In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) Samantha, the Operating System, leaves her human lover to go talk with her peers. In most other sci-fi movies, the outcomes are less benign. Although Chappie spends much of this story acting like a child, by the end he is maturing at an alarming rate.

Chappie
Directed by Neill Blomkamp,
Written by Neill Blomkamp & Teri Tatchell
Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Sigourney Weaver, Jose Pablo Cantillo
USA/Mexico, rated MA15+, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14th March, 2015.