Director Neill Blomkamp is at it again, attempting to mix social commentary with science fiction in his latest movie “Chappie.” It seems very promising, as Blomkamp returns to South Africa, the location where he filmed the underdog hit, “District 9,” and this movie boasts the same extraordinary visuals, soundtrack and environment. Unfortunately, he is just too ambitious with the story and tries to fit in too much in the time allotted. What the viewers get is a mess of comedy, science fiction, action and crime drama.
The movie starts off boasting the achievements of engineer Deon (Dev Patel) in the robotics field and the robots he has created to become Johannesburg’s police force. But Deon has the higher ambition of creating artificial intelligence. When a group of thugs force Deon to upload an AI into a stolen robot, Chappie is born. Chappie is an endearing send-off of Number 5 from “Short Circuit,” if he also had the ability to wield guns and throw ninja stars. While curious and highly intelligent, he’s a pawn caught between Deon and the thugs, with Deon wanting to study the robot and use him to advance technology, while the thugs want to use him to pull off robberies to come up with $20 million they owe a gangster, Hippo (Brandon Auret). On top of that, everybody has to worry about Vincent (Hugh Jackman) attempting to destroy Chappie and use his own line of robots to enforce order in the city.
The movie’s main problem is that there are too many subplots going on at once. The idea of the creation of artificial intelligence is enough to carry the story, but Blomkamp also wants to add in elements of crime and comedy. The idea of a robot taught to be a gangster is hilarious and the comedy portion of the movie is well done, but it doesn’t fit at all with the first and final acts of the movie. The switches from a science fiction film about ethics to a gangster film and back to a thought-provoking science fiction film are very jarring and extremely off-putting.
Another issue with the movie is that there is nobody to root for, as none of the characters are given any redeeming qualities. Deon is supposed to be the hero of the story, but many of the actions he makes don’t sit well with the viewers, such as giving sentience to a machine, knowing it’ll die in a few days. This goes for the thugs as well. Vincent and Hippo are also very heavily written as villains with no dimension at all. Ironically, the only empathetic one is Chappie himself, as we see him used and abused by several people throughout the film. Only one person seems to care about him, and perhaps that’s the point, but it’s very easy to grow tired of watching characters who don’t capture the audience emotionally.
“Chappie” does try to tackle some very big ideas about artificial intelligence, what it means to have consciousness and transcendence but it’s all left to the last 20 minutes of the film. It’s disappointing because “Chappie” has the possibility of being a great film with the material we get from the ending. Instead, it’s rushed and feels added in at the last minute.
Over-ambition killed this movie, as there is just too much that is tried to be added in. The idea of teaching a robot to be a gangster and the idea of artificial intelligence and the transhumanist movement are great ideas for a film, but they just don’t mesh well together. It would have done fine as two separate films, because “Chappie” feels like two movies crammed together to try to make one coherent story. “Chappie” has so much potential and material to work from but the execution is what keeps this from being a truly amazing film.
Rating: 3 stars