Tweetable Takeaway: Chappie asks big questions, but never gives satisfying answers.
By: Wil Loper, Contributor
If you found yourself watching the first third of Wall-E and thought to yourself, Man, why does this robot have to be picking up garbage. Why can’t he be roaming around shooting things?? CHAPPIE might be just the movie for you. Brought to fruition by Neill Blomkamp, Chappie follows in the footsteps of Blomkamp’s previous two outings, District 9 and Elysium by being set in the future and brimming with social commentary. The shoes those two movies might be a little too big for little Chappie, however, as it doesn’t quite hit all the high marks set by its predecessors.
Chappie begins with a little world-setting: It’s South Africa, and robots have been enlisted to help quell the swell the crime. The robots are provided by private company Tetravaal helmed by Sigourney Weaver as Michelle Bradley. There are some rightfully placed fears that the robots could be programmed by anyone to do anything if they were able to hack into them, but Tetravaal assures us that their security is hack-proof, and the only way to reprogram the robots is with a small USB flash drive locked behind a flimsy cage with no guards or even a sign-up sheet to take it. It appears that any employee at Tetravaal has access to this flash drive, but that shouldn’t be a problem, especially if you don’t have a highly temperamental mulleted Hugh Jackman working for you, right? Oh, shoot…
Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, one of the workers at Tetravaal who seems to be responsible for much of the success of the robot program. He stays up late each night at his home filled with talking Roombas attempting to create an A.I. that can think, feel, and learn. For the sake of the movie’s pacing, he does so rather quickly, but is denied access to any of the current robots to test on. So he steals a damaged one that is guaranteed to die within five days.
But just Deon’s luck, there’s a group of gangsters who need to pay another gangster a lot of money, and what better way than to get a police robot and reprogram it? They hijack Deon’s van, and force him to bring Deon to life. Deon repeatedly explains the robot will be like a child at first, having to learn and grow, but that doesn’t stop one of the gangsters, Ninja, from impatiently thrusting a gun in Chappie’s hand and trying to get him to commit crimes.
Chappie learns to speak within minutes, picks up on physical tics, but his learning curve appears to be shaped like a plateau rather than grow exponentially, as one might expect from an artificial intelligence with a computer doing its processing. It’s a strange choice for Blomkamp to make. There’s plenty of thematic meat to chew on with Chappie’s growth mirroring that of raising human children up to be either good or bad. And the film touches on this theme, but never sinks its teeth fully in. Chappie’s growth stalls out at around 13 years old, maybe a 20 year old at the highest. There’s a chance to show in accelerated movie time how parenting and environment can influence a person once they’re all grown up, but we don’t get much of that here. While Chappie is in his infant stage, he has rocks thrown at him, gets set on fire, and has an arm sawed off. And yet he still grows up to be a pretty good guy. Chappie has at least one outburst at why humans always feel the need to hurt and cause pain. It’s a powerful moment to be sure, but it’s over far too quickly, only to be replaced by explosions and gunfire. While the action is fun enough to watch, there’s a sense of loss at what could have existed. Instead of bolstering the message, the movie squanders it.
Late in the movie, Chappie very quickly figures out how to transfer human consciousness to a thumb drive. One can only hope the flash drive is larger than 32GB. Again, this feat is at odds with the rest of the movie. Chappie learns slow when the movie needs him to, and accomplishes one of the greatest breakthroughs known to man when the movie requires it as well. The burgeoning intelligence in Chappie doesn’t seem to weigh on him at all, nor affect his behavior. He’s more human than he ought to be by the end. Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy was less human than Chappie. By the time Chappie is cracking the secrets behind human consciousness, he ought to be acting at least a little differently, if not completely different at this point. To make such a breakthrough in less than a day, Chappie’s intelligence would have sailed far past human intelligence at this point. But once again, any development of this plot thread is sidelined in favor of a huge gunfight.
At the very least, Chappie delves into the questions of artificial intelligence a little better than other recent movies that have set out to answer them. It’s a question being asked by more and more movies in the past two years, but none of these newer A.I. flicks have managed to knock it out of the park yet (I’m looking at you, Transcendence). Chappie will entertain you, it will cause you to consider some philosophical questions, but it won’t be making you itch to watch it a second or third time. I give Chappie 3 Roombas out of 5.
Score: 3 out of 5