A disappointing conclusion to Neill Blomkamp’s South African trilogy (“Elysium,” “District 9” and “Chappie” all represent sci-fi interpretations of South African social issues). “Chappie” is a flawed film with wasted potential. While the film raises deep and thought-provoking questions surrounding consciousness and humanity, the heart of the film fails to keep the audience emotionally engaged or entertained.
Like his films before, “Chappie” is the imagining of a near future South Africa. “District 9” introduced aliens to represent South African apartheid; “Elysium” introduced medical advancements to highlight the growing gaps between the rich and poor; “Chappie” introduces artificial intelligence to both demonstrate growing crime and the dangers of a robotic police force.
Taking place in the near future, “Chappie” introduces us to a crime-riddled and gang-controlled South Africa. In order to fight against these ruthless criminals, the police partner with Tetravaal, a private cooperation that constructs advanced robotics. Called scouts, these advanced robotics serve as military-like forces and nearly eliminate crime throughout the country. The introduction to “Chappie” very quickly immerses us into this world.
What would later be one of only two action sequences in the film, the introduction throws the audience into the violence and chaos of the nation. The action in the film is fast paced coupled with great CGI and special effects; watching the robot force work in tangent with South African police was engaging and immersive, laying an effective framework for the movie to build off. Unfortunately for “Chappie,” once the narrative was turned over to the primary cast, the film slowly fell apart.
The world building and sci-fi action are captivating, but the primary cast is so unlikeable, that it forces a barrier between the viewer and film. “Chappie” effectively makes all of its characters unlikeable, both ruining viewer immersion and making the film drag. Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Hugh Jackman (“X-Men & Days of Future Past) are introduced as the uncontrollable inventor and jealous soldier respectively, but these roles become stereotypical archetypes as the movie inches forward.
Coming off the great opening action sequence, we are introduced to Deon (Dev Patel), inventor of the robot force. Deon aspires to create fully functional artificial intelligence that can both feel and learn as humans do. After developing this technology, and being denied by his boss, Sigourney Weaver (“Avatar”), Deon steals a robot and brings it to life. Up to this point in the film, Deon is an innovative, though uncontrollable scientist that just wants to push the limits of technology. The viewer is made to root for Deon, but it’s almost impossible to do so because his actions are ineffective and endanger humanity.
Jackman’s role as the stereotypical macho and jealous ex-soldier with an incredibly large ego is much worse. A talented actor, Jackman’s character is given no depth or complexity. He stands opposite of Deon both as the villain of the film and as the human that sees artificial intelligence as a potential end to humanity. While his complaints about the dangers of artificial intelligence are more than justified, the viewer can’t get behind Jackman because his actions stem purely from a place of inferiority and jealousy. Jackman’s character is boiled down to an egotistical musclehead desperate for success. Powerful films have both an engaging protagonist and villain; “Chappie” has neither of these.
Finally, we move onto the worst part of “Chappie,” the supporting cast of African gangsters. Actors Ninja, Yo-landi Visser and Brandon Auret aren’t just unlikeable in their roles as street thugs, they are near unwatchable. The characters are painfully overwritten and overacted, to the point where it became difficult to sit through their scenes. Ninja and Yo-londi serve as mother and father to “Chappie” giving the two untalented actors way too much screen time. Auret (“Elysium”) serves as the one-note villain of the film, his only goals being to cause destruction and get paid.
While the heart of the film is brought down with script and acting issues, the robot at the center of the film makes the movie somewhat bearable. Watching the artificial intelligence learn and grow in a child-like way is engaging, is a lot of fun and has emotional depth. Watching him learn to paint and understand the world around him shines a different light on the human perception of the world. Coupled with this, watching his pure and innocent nature slowly corrupt because of humanity is the film’s greatest strength.
“Chappie” came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, successfully delivering a creative and engaging world with stylish action and a compelling narrative. Along its journey the film raised many questions, making the viewer ponder over human consciousness and our definition of humanity and life. Unfortunately, these moral questions and the development of Chappie himself are overshadowed by one-note underdeveloped characters with no complexity and subpar acting talents. The poor script and character creation coupled with poor casting create a movie that slowly drags to a great conclusion, but ultimately isn’t worth the ride.