BY COLIN HERZOG
Film about A.I. Doesn’t Quite Come Alive
From Hal 9000 to Bender, robots with artificial intelligence pose fascinating questions about what it means to be human, nature versus nurture and even mortality. Neill Blomkamp’s latest film tries to explore these areas as it focuses on near-future Johannesburg and its implementation of robot police officers to crack down crime and what happens when one is reborn with artificial intelligence and is raised by local criminals.
Unfortunately, despite some fantastic visuals and cinematography, an interesting soundtrack and some overall decent performances, “Chappie” falls short of its thematic aims.
The problem seems to be that, despite these complicated issues, the characters never really step back to think about what it is they’re doing or its implications. Granted, the film, like a “Twilight Zone” episode or science fiction short story, may just be presenting a story and it’s left to the viewer to figure out their own feelings on the matter, but that would work more effectively if there was a counter opinion. While not giving anything away, the ending is certainly a controversial one and one that, to some, may be happy and to others is actually extremely unsettling. Without someone in the film voicing another opinion, it feels like “Chappie” is over simplifying a complex philosophical issue; simplification is fine, but at least still cover one’s bases when you’re doing it.
In addition, not one character’s backstory comes to light. Maybe that’s deliberate, maybe there didn’t seem to be time for it, but without them, the human characters wind up being stereotypes and their motives general at best. At least the actors generally give fine performances for the material they are given, with Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) playing Deon, the creator of Chappie’s (Sharlto Copley, “The A-Team,” “District 9”) A.I. His delivery is solid overall (with one notable exception but that was likely more the writing’s cliché lines than him), but why he’s interested in A.I. to begin with and his actions at the end of the film are left unexplained. Likewise with Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, who at first seems sympathetic, but quickly written off as sociopathic/generic halfway through.
The gangsters who raise Chappie are decent, even though they look like parodies of 80s punk rebels, to the point that it is difficult to take them seriously. Still, it becomes easier to invest in them as Chappie’s presence forces them to establish a family dynamic that does make them interesting; however, again, background or motives are left unexplained—Yanki, played by Jose Pablo Cantillo (“The Walking Dead”), is nicknamed America and once they pull off a heist, exclaims that he can now go home, but there’s never any mention of it again. Even Ninja, played by Ninja (South African rapper), who takes on the role of an emotionally distant and abusive father, does get sympathy for his dedication to his girlfriend Yolandi (Yolandi Visser, South African artist) but struggles to accept Chappie beyond a tool. Yolandi is likely the most sympathetic, as she becomes protective of Chappie and the resulting tension between them and Deon over how to raise Chappie. It helps Chappie feel, well, human and Copley’s performance walks the line of simplistic and emotional well.
The action is superb and Blomkamp has a great eye for sets, as the blend of modern-dystopian Johannesburg leaps off the screen and the film does at least play with its themes, so for some borderline thoughtless food for thought, you could do a lot worse.