On the Silver Screen – Chappie
Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie is the story of a robot given consciousness by an ambitious scientist who doesn’t realise the wider implications of doing so. This film made a big impression on me so following my rating there’ll be a spoiler filled section where I go into more detail about certain aspects of the film.
Chappie is a very ambitious project that covers a lot of philosophical ground in a very short time. It’s something that is the major strength and weakness of the film. On one hand the film tries to tackle too much in too short a time but on the other it should be applauded just for making the attempt and managing to turn out as something fairly cohesive.
The concept of Artificial Intelligence becoming sentient and the exploration of what that means for the world is nothing new in Science Fiction. It has been covered many times and will no doubt continue to be something that’s explored until we really have to deal with it in the world we live in. Since there are so many of these sorts of stories then any new attempt really has to be something that stands out in some way. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is the most recent example of trying a story like this and presenting it in a very unique way so does Chappie do the same?
In many ways it does. The life and development of the Artificial Intelligence is presented as being like a child growing up. It’s a very accelerated development but Chappie basically goes from birth to death inside of a week and deals with the growing pains as he progresses. Due to the circumstances of his birth he is often left with people who could be seen as negative influences thus learns how to swear, shoot and commit crimes without any real moral context. There are a few moments in the film where his creator Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) tries to teach him the right thing but Chappie quickly finds that to be at odds with life lessons taught by those around them. Since Deon comes and goes without giving him any real world examples of the lessons he is teaching they make very little sense and Chappie finds himself gravitating towards what those around him are teaching him.
It becomes a serviceable metaphor for growing up with absentee parents as their lack of presence tends to complicate the development of a person. It can even be likened to the concept of teenage rebellion and hanging around with people your parents deem to be undesirables. There’s a scene where Deon confronts Chappie that distinctly feels like a disappointed parent scolding his child over the choices he has made.
Unfortunately it’s not always as fluid as that and the film does mix metaphors quite often. I’ll talk more about this in the spoiler section but the role of Deon in Chappie’s existence tends to change depending on the needs of the scene. If there was something a little more cohesive in terms of the relationship between these two characters then the message would have been presented a lot more clearly. The number of issues being explores is sizable which means that sometimes they go unexplored in any meaningful way. It becomes a little too muddled in some cases and brings things down slightly.
This film will basically live or die based on the audience reaction to the titular character. Sharlto Copley provides the voice and motion capture for Chappie and I think he does a fantastic job. The character can easily be assigned human characteristics and manages to gain my sympathy pretty much right away. There’s a solid transition from innocence to knowledge with lots of detail given to Chappie’s development along the way. As a character the film does a lot right with him but I can see how some of the moments designed to be charming or adorable could rub some people up the wrong way. Personally I liked Chappie and really rooted for him throughout the film.
The other characters were a bit of a mixed bag. Patel’s Deon started out fairly promising but once his role in creating Chappie was over with he became somewhat superfluous to the story. He turns up at key points to serve a given purpose but he seems to be an enabler for the plot rather than a character with any agency. Very little time is devoted the the wider implications of his invention from his perspective so he generally comes across as being something of a missed opportunity.
Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore comes across as a cartoonish psychopath for most of the film. His character had the potential to be an interesting vehicle for the exploration of the counter argument in the debate over Chappie’s existence. It feels like a better conceived character existed in earlier drafts of the script but was gradually chipped away until we get the one note crazy person that appears in the finished product. That isn’t to say that Jackman does a bad job. He gives it his all as usual and is definitely worth watching but there was lots of unrealised potential for him.
After doing a little bit of research I’ve discovered that Ninja and Yolandi are basically playing themselves in this film. Apparently they are a band in South Africa that are pretty popular so this qualifies as stunt casting. I actually bought their characters enough so that it wasn’t really noticeable that some sort of stunt casting was going on. They seemed like South African actors in a film by a South African director to me. I guess it’ll vary depending on where in the world you are but they worked for me. I liked that they were the less than ideal role models for a young mind but ended up raising him anyway. It made the whole thing feel a bit different.
Sigourney Weaver is barely in this film and it comes across that she’s something of a stunt casting decision to give it another name to help with marketing. She does absolutely nothing new in terms of performances here but she does a good job nonetheless. Her character automatically commands respect as an authority figure and ultimately that’s what she’s there for.
In general there’s a bit of a freshness to the film in the style and setting. Most blockbusters are set somewhere in America with American actors but setting the film in Johannesburg with a mostly South African cast made this one stand out in ways that other films this year won’t. I liked the way the setting was structured and the Urban decay looked distinct.
At times this film felt like a modern update of Short Circuit if it was combined with Robocop. The setting being a crime filled wasteland and the idea of artificial intelligence being presented together drew on elements from both films and combined them in an interesting way.
The film does opt for an action climax instead of a thoughtful one which I felt to be the wrong decision. It was all very exciting and nicely shot but I was more interested in the moral issues behind it. I think that this film would have been stronger if it had left out the action climax and allowed the ideas to carry the ending.
An ambitious and interesting science fiction project that explores a lot of ideals in a short space of time.
The whole notion of Artificial Intelligence becoming sentient is a popular idea in Science Fiction and this film explores it in clever ways. Having the Chappie character’s development mimic the life cycle of a human being growing up from birth to death is a good idea and works really well when transitioning the character from innocence to experience.
I liked Chappie and rooted for him throughout the film. Sharlto Copley does a great job of portraying this character and making him sympathetic. I can see how his traits might annoy people but for me this worked.
The other characters are a mixed bag with Chappie’s creator Deon coming and going from the plot so often it’s hard to gauge his overall importance to the narrative. Hugh Jackman’s Vincent was such a cartoonishly evil villain that it was impossible to take him seriously but Jackman makes him worth watching as always.
Ninja and Yolandi do a good job of what I can only imagine is playing themselves in the film and give Chappie some unconventional role models to follow giving things a bit of a freshness that will help the film stand apart from the crowd.
In general the film feels very fresh with the South African cast and setting giving it a very unique feel that works very well. I really liked the imagery of the Urban decay in Johannesburg and the way that the film built the world that it inhabits.
The biggest flaw with the film is also the biggest strength. Exploring the notion of Artificial Intelligence gaining sentience is all well and good but the film tries to cover this and a multitude of other issues from so many different angles that it starts to feel a little muddled. A lack of focus on any one issue for very long means that it goes somewhat unexplored in any meaningful way. I do applaud the film for giving it a go and I will go into more detail in the spoiler section.
Despite the obvious flaws I greatly enjoyed this film and was fascinated by the ideas presented. My scores are relative to my enjoyment of the film so that’s why it is higher than some of my comments suggest.
User Review( votes)
This film covers a multitude of issues in the relatively short 120 minute run time. I didn’t want to cover in so much detail that I spoiled everything in the film for those watching it so that’s why I’ve separated this into another section.
I’ll start with the debate that is hinted at in the trailer. Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore points out that Artificial Intelligence is too unpredictable and runs the risk of going out of control due to the fact that it can think for itself. The film also lists the possibility that it can be hacked and used against those who created it.
Basically it’s the same argument presented in the Terminator franchise only here it doesn’t really seem to be an issue because of how the robots are constructed and how their Artificial Intelligence is handled. There are safeguards in place to prevent that from happening so for all intents and purposes the technology is safe.
Vincent Moore’s argument is that he’s more comfortable with robots that are controlled from a distance using a neural interface that means a rational and ethically minded human being is at the controls which will reduce the chances of error significantly.
As debates go this one is really simple and solid. Moore’s position isn’t necessarily incorrect but a big problem is that the film skirts over this issue by turning Moore into a raving madman which makes any line of thought he subscribes too inherently flawed. I really think that there are multiple concepts strong enough to be used to craft a film within this one that don’t get enough chance to breathe due to the sometimes cluttered nature of the story.
The next issue the film touches on is the notion of parenting. This one actually gets the majority of the development as the narrative does focus on Chappie as a character. He starts off being childlike and slowly grows to gain a somewhat fractured understanding of life. I mentioned above that he is left with the less than perfect role models so learns some negative lessons without the positive context to make an informed decision about what is right from wrong.
In general this is handled very well but there wasn’t enough input from his creator Deon to provide a decent balance. I don’t think this was necessarily needed but little explanation is given for why he disappears from the plot for large chunks of it and doesn’t seem to care that his creation’s mortality is being somewhat corrupted by those he has been left with.
Chappie does have lessons coming from three distinct role models. Deon wants Chappie to be peaceful and explore his creative side which directly contrasts with Ninja’s desire to teach him to be cool. This basically amounts to him walking like a “Gangster”, swearing and being really violent. Lastly Yolandi just wants him to be himself and identifies as his mother. Her influence is the more genuine of the three as the other two seem to see him as more of a means to an end be it scientific or criminal but Yolandi is genuinely interested in letting him develop in his own way. Their connection is pretty heartwarming and it’s a great relationship to see unfold.
This presents another problem as the film can’t seem to settle on the roles of the characters in some cases. Deon is the most confused as he identifies himself as being Chappie’s maker which would suggest that he is sort of Chappie’s God. The film even touches on this through Chappie’s life being on a time limit due to the fact that his battery can’t be replaced and his life span is less than a week. There’s a scene where a being literally asks his creator why he was created to die and the creator has no answer for that question. The religious overtones are somewhat obvious here and it is an interesting idea that is never fully explored.
In that same scene Deon comes across like a father scolding his son who has disappointed him. He clearly has no command over this rebellious youth and is treated with a little bit of disdain. If the film had more firmly established whether Deon was his God or his father instead of an uncomfortable combination of both this aspect would have been a lot stronger. Yolandi is fine as she is always the mother figure and Ninja seems to shift between being a father figure and a stepfather throughout the film. At times it does feel a little muddled.
Lastly the notion of the meaning of life and what it means to be sentient is approached but never explored in the narrative. Chappie seems to take no time at all to discover what consciousness is and learn how to back it up onto a hard drive. He vastly redefines the understanding of life as he transfers his maker, his mother and himself into new bodies. The implications of this are massive and are ultimately glossed over almost completely.
Is the consciousness in the new body the original or merely a copy? Is it the right thing to do? What will this mean for the rest of the world?
Those are only a handful of the questions raised by this and again, there’s a whole film in there. I would like a sequel to this film to explore the idea to the fullest. It presents an interesting set of ethical and philosophical questions that deserve to be explored.
In many ways the film feels like an extended trailer for a lot of other films that have these ideas at the center of them. The overall execution of what we have so far works really well so the problems aren’t quite as significant as they could be but the whole thing left me thinking. I guess that was the point but I would have liked more meat to those issues.