With Chappie (2015), director Neill Blomkamp abandons his lofty aspirations as a political commentator, which results in his first film that is not actively insulting. Instead, he explores much simpler themes of acceptance and nurturing, but still fails to deliver – I’m not sure if that’s an improvement or not.
Chappie takes inspiration from Robocop (dir. Verhoeven, 1987), being set sometime in the near future when robotic police under the control of a private company maintain law and order. Robocop used this concept to criticise capitalism and the privatisation of public services – as a private company running the police results in the interests of the company taking precedence over justice and public safety. Chappie doesn’t see this as a concern, with everything running smoothly until Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), an employee jealous of the success of the police robots, shuts them down so his rival robot ‘MOOSE’ can take their place. Vincent is a superfluous character who distracts from the main themes of the film and is only included to provide an arbitrary threat, and so the film can conclude with the customary ‘big robot battle’. His characterisation is hugely shallow, providing little justification for why he would put millions of lives at risk so his project can see fruition, beyond, ‘he used to be in the military’. Yes, Blomkamp’s stereotypical military man strikes again!
The main plot centres on Chappie (Sharlto Copley), a police robot given consciousness by the robots’ creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Deon is kidnapped by a gang of criminals (including the rap combo Die Antwoord playing themselves) who believe he has a remote control that can switch all the police robots off. Why they believe such a ridiculously convenient plot device exists is uncertain; perhaps they’ve seen Elysium (dir. Blomkamp, 2013) and know what to expect in a Blomkamp film. When Deon is unable to comply, they instead force him to activate Chappie so they can raise him as their own, and he can help them carry out a heist so they can pay 20 million rand to Hippo (Brandon Auret), a powerful gangster they’re in debt to. Here the main themes of acceptance and nurturing come into play. Deon wants to give Chappie the freedom to develop his artistic talents and scientific skills. Yolandi is gentle and loving towards Chappie, acting as a mother. Ninja acts as Chappie’s father but is aggressive and abusive, only seeing him as a machine he can use for profit. The third gang member, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), is a criminal Mexican and racial stereotype and doesn’t have any input (I think he just wandered off the set of Elysium). Military Man (yeah, I’m just gonna call him that now) also has an issue with Chappie being given consciousness, because he goes to church on Sundays (I think that translates in Blomkamp’s mind as he’s evil), but his presence is completely pointless because we’ve already got Ninja to act as the antagonist.
The main themes are all well and good but not sufficiently explored, and character relationships are not developed, being interrupted by pointless action. Firstly, we’ve got Ninja dumping Chappie in the middle of nowhere so he can get attacked by Military Man, and Yolandi can teach him how he’s different but ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’. Ninja’s motivations are confusing as he needs Chappie to commit a heist, so it makes little sense that he would risk losing him, and Military Man’s attack on Chappie was unnecessary, as Ninja’s already been prejudiced and violent towards him, giving Yolandi reason to teach her moral. Ninja gives Chappie a different moral lesson, telling him it’s a ‘dog eat dog world’. He also reveals that Deon put him in a broken body that will shortly die, and he can get him a new body if he helps him with the heist. Chappie confronts Deon, asking, “why did you just make me so I could die?” – a potent question. Deon’s answer is merely, ‘he didn’t know what Chappie would become’. A more honest answer might be he was selfish and put his desire for scientific discovery before concerns for a living creature, meaning he used Chappie for his own benefit, making him as bad as Ninja, who he has thus far criticised. But these facts go unexplored as the action cuts back to Military Man’s nefarious plot as he shuts down all the robots, including Chappie.
Deon takes Chappie to Military Man’s lab where he is able to reactivate him, here he discovers a helmet that Military Man uses to control MOOSE by reading brainwaves. Chappie takes the helmet and discovers how to transfer consciousness between bodies by reading information on the Internet and running a test on Yolandi. Yes, that’s right, he learns how to transfer consciousness because the Internet tells him how. However, all this information he discovers fails to inform him that people don’t just “go sleepy-weepy” when you throw ninja stars at them, and he is tricked into carrying out the heist with the gang and severely injuring multiple police officers. Chappie then conveniently fails to confront the gang, including his beloved mother, Yolandi, for lying to him and this discovery has no repercussions whatsoever. Instead, Chappie questions Ninja about getting his new body and Ninja confesses he was lying and apologises. It is uncertain why at this point Ninja decides to be honest and affectionate towards Chappie; the film is clearly missing an important beat in which Ninja accepts Chappie as a real person. Returning to their hideout, Chappie continues questioning Ninja, asking, “why you humans do this? Why you all lie?”. But these questions are interrupted by the pointless action, as Deon arrives to tell Chappie there’s no time for discussion as MOOSE is coming to kill him; big robot fight, YAY! Hippo also arrives, looking for his money, and there are lots of explosions and shooting and stuff, and Deon is fatally injured.
Chappie decides to risk everything to transfer Deon’s consciousness into a robot instead of his own and Ninja decides to confront MOOSE so Chappie can succeed. Very little of this makes any sense character-wise, the last time they saw each other, Chappie hated Deon, and Ninja has suddenly gone from lying to Chappie and using him as a commodity to being willing to sacrifice his life for him. Ninja’s attempted sacrifice fails as Yolandi refuses to leave him behind and dies trying to help him. Chappie finally destroys MOOSE, manages to transfer Deon’s consciousness, and his consciousness is also transferred to another robot by Deon. Ninja’s attempted sacrifice and Yolandi’s death are presented as big emotional events. We’re meant to feel moved by Ninja’s heroism and his tearful mourning of Yolandi’s death, but why should we? Ninja has been nothing but an abusive, manipulative arsehole for the entire film. The answer is that outside of the film, Ninja is viewed by fans as a heroic gangster with an undying love for Yolandi, but unless you have knowledge of Die Antwoord and their media personas, these events make no sense judging purely from what we’ve seen onscreen. If the narrative were to make any sense, we need a scene where Ninja comes to properly realise the error of his ways or Chappie and Yolandi need to reject him, and he receives his comeuppance. I’m a fan of Die Antwoord, so they are in no way the reason for my negativity, but expecting an audience to feel sympathy for their characters, even though it hasn’t been earned, makes the film come across more like a commercial for the band than a proper story.
The film concludes with Ninja discovering Yolandi’s consciousness was saved during Chappie’s initial test, and her consciousness is also transferred into a robot; so everybody lives, YAY! But what is the film saying? Deon, Military Man, Ninja, Hippo, and to a lesser extent, Yolandi and Amerika, are all guilty of putting their own interests above others – in Ninja’s words, believing in a ‘dog eat dog’ world. So, are Chappie, Ninja and Yolandi’s sacrifices a criticism of this way of thinking? Maybe, to be honest, it’s hard to tell if this was the intention or not as vital beats are missing from the script. Personally, I’d like to see a far more intimate and restrained draft in which the company, Hippo, Amerika and Military Man are not included or feature to a far lesser extent. Deon simply could have created Chappie to be the first conscious robot, and he is kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi as they wish to use Chappie to commit crimes. The whole film could be focused on his upbringing, the right way to nurture him, and Ninja’s eventual acceptance and sacrifice. The main themes could be better explored, and character relationships could be developed properly. Will Blomkamp ever produce such a low-key script? Doubtful, as he’s an action director and visual effects specialist, so my advice would be, stick to those roles. The film’s action is well directed by modern standards, as you can actually tell what’s going on instead of being lost in a blur of CGI confusion, and the visual effects are distinctive and seamlessly incorporated. Blomkamp is clearly a man of many ideas, but I’d advise, in future, he give the job of scripting them to someone else.
More Neill Blomkamp!