If a mashup of 80s robot flicks Short Circuit and RoboCop sounds like a bad joke, well: almost. Chappie is often risible, but it’s more sad than anything else. Not the good kind of sad: this is not a poignant or touching film, though it clearly hopes to be. No, Chappie makes me sad because the promise that South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp displayed with his brilliant District 9 and which hung over his flawed but still daring followup Elysium is nowhere to be found here. Chappie is a morally muddled mess that is convoluted in plot and appallingly simplistic in its themes. It wants us to feel emotion that it doesn’t know how to earn. And perhaps most mysteriously, it pushes us to ponder, by the end, that maybe the character it clearly posits as the villain is the one who got closest to the truth of the matter under consideration.
It’s almost cruel and it’s definitely stupid, what robotics engineer and AI hobbyist Deon Wilson (Dev Patel: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Last Airbender) does, although the movie doesn’t seem to recognize either the cruelty or the stupidity. When his boss — Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver: Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Cold Light of Day), CEO of military contractor Tetra Vaal — tells Deon, for perfectly legitimate reasons, that No, he cannot test out his just-finished AI program in one of the company’s smart but not sentient police androids, Deon goes ahead and grabs a damaged unit from the trash compactor and does it anyway. Though it’s not quite that straightforward: on the way to his homebrew Singularity, Deon gets carjacked by a couple of criminals who figure he, as designer of the police robots, has a remote control that can turn them all off, the better for them to pull a big heist so they can pay back the druglord they pissed off. And when he insists that such a device does not exist, he convinces these skeezeballs to let him give them his sentient robot, in exchange for not killing him.
Think about this: Deon hands over his baby — literally his baby; the robot will grow and learn like a human infant, although much much faster, which seems scientifically plausible — over to a couple of violent sociopaths to raise up as one of their own. This is cruel to the AI and stupid for the people of Johannesburg, what with an almost indestructible android weapon now in the hands of bad guys who have no compunction about killing. (If the mock-documentary District 9-esque opening sequence had hoped to convince us that the good people of Johannesburg are unfairly under siege by the robots cops, it fails. The impression we get is only that for-real criminals are being stopped in their crimes. So the AI cop robot’s adoption is no strike against an oppressive government or anything like that, and these bad guys are no rebels or Robin Hoods.) If we’re to feel toward Chappie, as the AI robot is christened, what the film wants us to feel toward it/him, and react as if it/he is an emotional, sensitive being who is intelligent on a human level, then the movie needs to recognize that its entire premise is that a vulnerable, credulous, naive, trusting being has been left in an abusive situation. And it doesn’t.
Instead, Chappie thinks Chappie’s situation is, for the most part, hilarious. The criminals, Ninja and Yolandi, are played by a pair of South African rappers who perform under the name Die Antwoord, and the characters share the actors’ names. Which is a bit weird, unless the performers are happy with being likened to violent sociopaths. I did not learn who these two are before I saw the film, but I could see that something was off about how they are depicted: they are not sympathetic in the least, and yet we are obviously intended to find them cool and awesome. We’re supposed to go “Awww” when Chappie (a CGI creation, with voice and motion-capture provided by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley: Maleficent, Europa Report) starts calling them “Mommy” and “Daddy.” We’re supposed to find it funny when “Daddy” gives Chappie some bling and some “tattoos” (graffiti spray-painted on its/his titanium chassis) and teaches it/him how to shoot a gun and how to act “gangsta.” Chappie learns how to fist-bump and “adorably” regurgitate “motherfucker!” as “fuck-mother!” Just like Baymax! Well, the fist-bumping, anyway.
I wish I knew what Chappie thinks it is trying to say. Even my tiny grasping at something to like — Hey! At least it’s a would-be blockbuster that is not U.S.-centric! — ends up getting a smack: Why do the robot Johannesburg cops speak with American accents? Why do they kinda sound like Peter Weller? (I’m sure I know why.) As if the director is deliberately rejecting my fangirl love, Blomkamp even manages to get the first-ever bad performance out of Hugh Jackman (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Prisoners), as another Tetra Vaal engineer, one trying to push his human-controlled ED-209 as an alternative to Deon’s android cops; even in bad movies, Jackman has never struggled like he does here to make his character plausible. (Small spoiler: He’s kind of the villain. It does not suit him the way that Conflicted Antihero does.)
I am a sad geek after Chappie. I really wanted to like this. I think I’ll just go watch District 9 again.