By Bob Garver
“Chappie” is a film that really wants to explore the role of artificial intelligence in mankind’s future. If it was as deep as it claims to be, I might not have such a problem with it. But whatever larger issues it wants to raise can’t be taken seriously because the film is weighed down by its overly convoluted and nonsensical plot.
The story takes place in future Johannesburg, where a robot police force has made things a lot safer. Deon (Dev Patel), the robots’ engineer, thinks that the robots are a little too, well, robotic, and is developing an artificial intelligence that will allow the robots to think and feel for themselves. His rival is Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who has invented a big clunky robot (clearly an homage to the big clunky robot from “Robocop”) that has to be controlled by a human. Specifically, it has to be controlled by him because he proclaims himself to be a moral authority and nobody questions this. The head of the robotics company (Sigourney Weaver) denies Deon permission to test the artificial intelligence program on a battered old robot (Sharlto Copley) because she says the program isn’t profitable. It’s clear to anyone watching this movie that the program could be very profitable, but the company is moronic in just about every decision it makes, so why wouldn’t it pass up this opportunity?
Deon steals the robot to do some off-the-clock testing, but he and the robot immediately get kidnapped. Yo-landi (Yolandi Visser), Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Ninja (an actor who just goes by the name Ninja) are a group of thugs who owe money to a local drug lord (Brandon Auret, who has such a thick accent that he needs subtitles when he speaks English. The movie probably could have used subtitles for Yo-landi too). They need the robot to help them pull off a heist to pay the drug lord back, though I don’t know why they don’t just plan to use the robot to fight him off.
The problem is that the robot has a blank slate for a mind; it’s basically a newborn. This is frustrating for Amerika and Ninja, but the more maternal Yo-landi catches on pretty easily. She names the robot Chappie because he’s such a happy little chap. Chappie’s development is influenced by the loving Yo-landi, the violent Amerika and Ninja, and the God-like Deon, who somewhat arrogantly thinks that because he created Chappie, that automatically gives him authority over him. Chappie gets conflicting input that forces him to make some choices, and they aren’t always the right ones. Chappie soon finds himself corrupted, and Vincent sees an opportunity to swoop in and save the day.
The big problem with this movie is that the characters keep making decisions that don’t make sense. I’ve already talked about how it’s idiotic for Weaver to not see the unlimited applications for Deon’s technology. It’s just conflict for the sake of conflict. I also have no idea how Vincent rose to such a position of prominence in the robotics company when he’s such a jerk with impractical ideas. Perhaps worst of all is that the security at the robotics company is laughably incompetent; are we really supposed to believe that these bumblers are keeping Johannesburg safe? The film is overloaded with little detractions like that.
And yet, I don’t want to be too hard on this movie. The robots, especially Chappie, are really well-designed, and director Neill Blomkamp proves once again that he has a flair for visual effects. It’s funny too, and the characters (except the ever-miserable Vincent) have engaging personalities. The larger issues it raises about morality and spirituality are interesting, even if they make up too little of the movie. But that mess of a plot keeps getting in the way. A good rule of thumb with this movie is that the scenes that involve Chappie are good and everything else is nonsense.
Two Stars out of Five.
“Chappie” is rated R for violence, language and brief nudity. Its running time is 120 minutes.