The sentient robot is a revered tradition in science fiction, going all the way back to the 1920 Czech play “R.U.R.” in which the word “robot” was invented. Tradition does not stand on its own, however, as illustrated by Neill Blomkamp’s new film, “Chappie.” “Chappie” tries to shoulder the mantle of ethically concerned speculative fiction, but its manic pacing and incoherent jumble of plotlines prevent it from ever rising above a garbled cheer for transhumanism.
In the extreme near future, a robotic police force designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is introduced to the post-apartheid hell of Johannesburg, South Africa, resulting in a dramatic reduction in crime. When Wilson, under threats from a small gang of criminals (Ninja and Yolandi Visson of Die Antwoord, playing under their own names), installs an artificial intelligence onto one of the robot bodies, it becomes Chappie (Sharlto Copley), and chaos ensues.
The writing (by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell) is generally bad. Characters are introduced to serve a single function, with little actual development. Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), Wilson’s co-worker, is nothing but a cartoonishly villainous rival. Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), president of Wilson’s company, merely serves to frustrate Wilson and give Moore free rein on the way to the film’s denouement. Ninja is a snarling, ill-humored gangster; Yolandi is a sweet mother-figure. Chappie is an innocent punching-bag. The plot can be charitably described as one damned thing after another. Wilson types furiously at his computer and suddenly he has invented an AI; Chappie types furiously at a computer and, within 20 seconds of screen time, he has “solved consciousness”; Moore plugs an external drive into a computer and suddenly he has a program that can shut down the entire robot police force. This is a movie that simply tries to put too much material into 120 minutes and so spends no more than a few minutes on each plot point—an approach that leaves much wanting in the story.
Given the writing, it is no wonder that the performances are heavy-handed and wooden at best. Hugh Jackman spends most of his time on screen snarling or laughing evilly, two activities that can only be given so much histrionic subtlety. Patel’s Wilson shows that he is naive and well intentioned and very smart by smiling and crushing cans of Red Bull. Copley’s Chappie gambols to show that he is innocent and mumbles to show that he is embittered, with very little modulation between these two modes. Ninja spits and shouts to show that he is violent; Yolandi coos and murmurs to show that she is nurturing.
The cinematography matches the writing. The inevitable shaky cam accompanies action and sweeping aerial shots of Johannesburg set scenes. There are enough explosions and enough robotic fight sequences, punctuated by melodramatic slow-motion, to draw the drooling herds who make Michael Bay wealthier by the year. Cuts are jarring and fast enough to keep the viewer from ever quite figuring out all of what he or she is seeing.
By all standards, “Chappie” is quite a disappointment. It contributes nothing new to the genre of science fiction, and it contributes nothing good to the medium of cinema. It is so fast-paced and so shallow in its treatment of even the most interesting and challenging themes—death, consciousness, playing God, human nature, the increasing place of technology in our lives, the surveillance state—that it is, in some way, a perfect treatment of the information age’s approach to life and the big questions: twitchy, excited, and devoid of grandeur or even coherence. It is curious, but not curious enough to take the time to learn. No doubt “Chappie” will attract many who do not find any odium in this way of life. For everyone else, there is still “Blade Runner.”
—Staff writer Jude D. Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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