With his debut feature, District 9, Neill Blomkamp promised to be the return of big ideas and meaningful social commentary to science fiction. His second feature, Elysium, was a bit of a let-down; half-baked musings on income inequality scattered among sloppy firefights. His latest effort, CHAPPiE, promised to be a return to District 9‘s form, but again fails to have much to say. It’s better than Elysium, yes, but still lacks substance.
The most obvious reference here is to Short Circuit 2, which turned self-aware robot Johnny 5″ loose on the streets of late-’80s Los Angeles. Rest assured, at least, that this movie is not as bad as that one. Nobody here is casting Fisher Stevens as an offensively-broad Indian stereotype; CHAPPiE’s creator, Deon, is only slightly stereotyped, and they got real-live Indian Dev Patel to play him. No shoe-polish here!
Actually, the character visuals are the one thing I can praise here. The CHAPPiE robot is rendered by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital from motion-capture by Blomkamp favorite Sharlto Copley, in much the same way as Andy Serkis portrayed Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in the latest Planet of the Apes movies. Their work is better than ever; CHAPPiE the robot looks fantastic. Copley himself deserves credit for his physical work, steadily developing the robot’s body language as the story plays out, turning a graphical stunt into a believable leading character.
Unfortunately, the script — penned again by Blomkamp and wife Terri Tatchell — isn’t quite so helpful. The police in Johannesburg have purchased a hundred “Scout” robots to use as light cavalry as they crack down on crime. Deon invented them for weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, but he’s really interested in true artificial intelligence more than a mere drone expert system; he’s spent the last three years working all night coding a “consciousness” he can plug into a Scout.
But just as Deon gets hold of a decomissioned robot body, he gets kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi (Johannesburg rapper Ninja and wife Yolandi Visser), who assume he can somehow turn off the Scouts while they carry out a heist. They instead decide to keep CHAPPiE and use him to help with their plans.
The scenes where Yolandi interacts with CHAPPiE are charming. She takes to him as a mother to her precocious, robotic child. Copley does a wonderful job of communicating CHAPPiE’s childlike exuberance, along with his naïveté as Ninja pushes him towards the thug life. Somewhere in here there’s a beautiful short film.
But in order to create CHAPPiE, Deon had to bend a few rules, and one of his colleagues, Victor (Hugh Jackman), is eager to exploit those violations to advance his own “Moose” project, the ED-209 to the Scouts’ RoboCop. In an interesting inversion, while ED-209 was a drone and RoboCop was controlled by a human mind, this time the Moose is driven by an operator wearing a neural interface helmet.
And this helmet is Blomkamp’s excuse to introduce even more Big Ideas. He never really does address any substantial ideas about the existence of strong AI, but he’s eager to pile on all the superficial mentions of other issues he can think of. It’s late-night stoner territory: “what if a computer could think? or what if you could upload yourself into a computer? or what if…” And it’s all handled with about as much thought towards realism as your average late-’90s hacker flick, because Sony VAIO laptops and a rack of PlayStation 4 servers are magic. By the way, guess who produced the movie.
Victor is also the center of another weird choice on Blomkamp’s part: a strong — and largely unreasoned — anti-religion streak. I’m hardly against criticizing religion, and the idea of a conscious AI obviously raises some pretty big questions about the traditional religious understanding of the soul, but Blomkamp doesn’t actually address that question. Instead we get this cartoon of a hypermilitarized conservative who waves a gun around in the office, claiming “it’s a joke!”, and spits “godless” as an expletive as he hunts CHAPPiE down.
Blomkamp constantly presents more ideas that could be really interesting for science fiction to tackle — theory of consciousness, xenophobia, police militarization, existential crises — but he can’t manage to follow through on any of them. The movie positions itself as gritty, realistic, “hard sci-fi”, but can’t be bothered to actually think about much of anything. It presents the outward appearance of intelligence, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s nobody at home inside.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.