A movie that brings up issues of Artificial Intelligence, consciousness, and what it means to be alive is a movie that should generate questions from its audience. Unfortunately, the only question generated from Director Neill Blomkamp’s CHAPPiE is: Was District 9 a fluke?
In the far-flung future of 2016, Johannesburg, South Africa enlists a robotic police force from a company called Tetravaal. The police bots crack down hard on the crime in Johannesburg, which is at Gotham City or Robocop Detroit levels of ridiculousness. The creator of the robots, Deon (Dev Patel), is more interested in pushing for a fully-sentient robot, but his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), isn’t interested in messing with a formula that works. Deon is also harassed by a jealous co-worker, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who has his own robot that is controlled by a human operator and looks exactly like ED-209 from Robocop. Of course, because Deon’s robots are doing so well, funding is constantly being pulled from Vincent’s project. When a robot is damaged and set for scrap, Deon, directly disobeying Michelle’s orders, steals the machine in order to test out his Artificial Intelligence program. Unfortunately for him, he has been targeted by a gang of thugs including Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). The gang needs to pull a big heist to pay off a mob boss, Hippo (Brandon Auret), but the robots make that prospect impossible. So, the gang figures if they kidnap Deon, they can make him turn off all the robots—he can’t, but they don’t know that. Instead, once they find this disassembled robot in Deon’s van, they basically force him to turn it on and they take possession. Deon vows to return to teach the robot, now named CHAPPiE (Sharlto Copley). Of course, the gang members turn CHAPPiE into a gangsta and hilarity ensues (not really).
The biggest problem with CHAPPiE is that you’re supposed to root for the robot in this, but that also requires you to sympathize with his new friends who are not good people at all. The world that the movie creates is also wholly inconsistent and has zero depth to it whatsoever. For instance, Tetravaal is a company that designs and builds military-grade hardware and there is absolutely ZERO security at that place. Characters come and go and steal whatever they want with no problem at all. It was laughably bad. Also, as mentioned earlier, the city itself is a comic book-type powder keg of crime just simmering beneath the surface. At one point, Vincent manages to shut down the robots in order to make his own robot essential and the city just explodes. I think there was supposed to be some plotline that the robots had become this gestapo-type police force that oppressed everyone, but nothing like that exists in the final product. The level of criminal activity just ends up being comical. The movie also fails to come full circle with the opening prologue. Blomkamp rips off his own District 9 with a documentary-style prologue that never links up with the end of the film. It was just another side effect of the shoddy script.
On top of those issues, Blomkamp is way too heavy-handed with his themes and there is also a preponderance of what I like to call “Independence Day Science,” which refers to the moment in Independence Day when Jeff Goldblum ends an alien invasion with a Mac. Same thing here. The question of AI and computer sentience is merely glossed over using more “Independence Day Science,” and it is dumbed down to a laughably simple concept, which it is not. Also, according to the movie, stringing together a bunch of PS4s can create a super computer. Here’s a shocker, Columbia Pictures—also known as Sony Pictures—is the studio behind CHAPPiE. It just all serves to take the viewer out of the film and make the whole thing completely unbelievable, detracting from the seamless CGI work and special effects. Blomkamp is definitely a great visual director, but that whole screenwriting thing keeps tripping him up. It felt like he had a lot of cool scenes in his mind and then tried to string a script around them to make it work as a whole, which fails miserably.
The best part about this film is Copley’s performance as CHAPPiE. He does a good job with the motion capture and he also does a good job at showing CHAPPiE’s childlike innocence. The problem, again, is the script and that leads to some uneven moments with CHAPPiE. Jackman is a convincing villain if he had a decent script backing him up. Instead, he goes way over the top here—at one point he puts a gun to Deon’s head in an office full of people and NOTHING HAPPENS. I look forward to seeing Jackman in more villainous roles in the future, but just as long as it’s not Vincent from CHAPPiE. Dev Patel does a decent job, even though his storyline is also all over the place, while Sigourney Weaver is completely wasted in this role. Now, let’s talk about Ninja and Yolandi—I could not stand these characters. The two of them are two halves of the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord and they felt like they were put in this movie on a bet or something. Maybe they reflect the culture in South Africa, but I couldn’t stomach them. This, of course, makes it tough to root for CHAPPiE.
Like Blomkamp’s previous film, Elysium, CHAPPiE has a great concept, but the execution is a complete failure. Whatever points the movie scores are squandered as it quickly devolves into a mash-up of Robocop and Short Circuit, while being inferior to both films. Hell, it’s even inferior to Fox’s canceled TV show Almost Human, which dealt with feeling machines in a much more satisfying way. Avoid CHAPPiE at all costs. Just watch District 9 again—hell, watch Elysium—and wonder what this means for the already announced Alien 5 that will be written and directed by Blomkamp. The latter part of that job isn’t bad, but it’s the first that moviegoers should be worried about. Of course, having a co-writer didn’t help him on CHAPPiE either, so I’m not sure what to expect on Alien 5. At least it’ll look great.