Robot sci-fi CHAPPiE explores class systems, riffing on our dog-eat-dog world with a robot-eat-robot metaphor, but ultimately gets its transformers in a twist.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Review by Zane Alexander
Director Neill Blomkamp returns from Elysium’s outer space to District 9’s familiar South African territory, in his latest sci-fi CHAPPiE. Set in Johannesburg, a robot police force of er… Robocops, are created by tech-geek Deon (Dev Patel) for weapons manufacturer Tetravaal’s company manager, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver). Local gang members, Ninja and Yolandi of Capetown rap-rave band Die Antwoord who play versions of themselves, plan to “find the guy who makes the robots and steal his remote”, but inadvertently become surrogate parents to a kidnapped robot Chappie, whom Deon has newly programmed with consciousness. Meanwhile, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who looks like he took to his hair with his Wolverine claws, plots to sabotage the robots so that his mind-controlled, giant robot can be contracted instead.
I must have got my wires crossed because I thought I was walking into something along the lines of 1986’s robot family film, Short Circuit – “number five is alive” – albeit it a pumped up 2015 adult version, but whereas that film endearingly explored A.I. consciousness, CHAPPiE disappointingly alienates with its multiple themes and crash-bang narrative. Indeed, the director must have taken time out to study at the Michael Bay Film School of Loud Noises and Crowded, Messy Shots, as the fast-paced, jump-cut styled editing combined with the intrusive thumping sound design of industrial percussion and electronica is headache-inducing.
Uneven performances from the cast in thinly written roles don’t help the situation. I’ve recently been bemoaning Patel’s (Slumdog Millionaire) lack of film appearances especially after being blown away with his hilarious and charismatic screen presence in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; while it was a great pleasure to see him here, his role is sorely underwritten, reduced to a simple plot contrivance, along with Weaver, who barely has any screen time. Jackman, however, sinks to new lows with his perfunctory performance, but then maybe he is over this type of material, having trod similar ground in 2011’s robot film Real Steel. Thankfully Ninja and Yolandi provide plenty of laughs with their opposing ideas over Chappie’s parenting, with Ninja training Chappie to be the “meanest-robot-killer-gangsta-on-the-block”, and Yolandi encouraging his artistic side. Chappie, voiced and motion-captured by Sharlto Copley, is a kind of monster to Patel’s Dr Frankenstein, and while Copley valiantly does his best to create an endearing character with his voice, he is let down twofold, by the narrative, and the unrealistic looking motion capture, resulting in the interesting situation of Yolandi inspiring more sympathy from the audience than Chappie does, confusing who is supposed to be the main character.
While I was a huge fan of District 9’s fearless socio-political commentary and original design, I was less impressed with Elysium’s lack of bite and Hollywoodisation. Their strength, however, was their clear theme of class injustice. District 9 cleverly used aliens as a way to explore the theme, and in the same way, CHAPPiE uses artificial intelligence; however where District 9 didn’t become a film about aliens, CHAPPiE mistakenly veers off its theme to become a story about its topic, and this is where things get muddled. Is life a battle zone, where we must turn to crime to survive; or are weapons not dangerous, only the people who wield them? Is our social development nature vs nurture; or is technology getting beyond our ability to control? Are we indoctrinated into a society of fear; or can we harness consciousness? Unfortunately, it overloads its motherboard due to the shallow exploration of too many ideas.
This is certainly not the first time artificial intelligence has been explored on film, however I was still expecting some originality from writer/director Blomkamp who struggles to find anything new or relevant in the material. While he ambitiously seeks to expand our consciousness, in the end, he only demonstrates artificial intelligence. Three stars.
CHAPPiE is in Australian cinemas from Thursday March 12th
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures