Escape Velocity

A curated Collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction Media

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The Johannesburg police force has incorporated nearly indestructible robots in its ranks to combat violent crime, though their sentience is limited. Just when a software developer is testing out his more advanced version of the AI program on a written off unit, he gets kidnapped by gangsters looking to hack the police robots for a planned heist. But what happens to a newly awoken sentient AI when he is raised by those same gangsters?

That’s three Neill Blomkamp movies for three weeks now, and unfortunately, of the three, Chappie is my least favourite.

Chappie is similar to the other Blomkamp movies I’ve reviewed in that it has interesting ideas, but falls short in its execution. In Chappie, that is mostly the result of the tonal inconsistencies combined with a less-than stellar script.

Firstly, the tone – it is all over the place. The visuals are over the top, almost cartoonish. The gangster main protagonists are effectively the stage personas of Die Antwoord, a South African rap formation, with the characters even sharing the actors’ stage names. They are as… colourful (not to say: trashy) as their real world counterparts appear to be, based on a quick glance at the abuse allegations on their Wikipedia page. This is contrasted with what (I assume) are supposed to be heartfelt moments of love and betrayal. The juxtaposition is jarring. If Blomkamp is trying to ask serious questions on automated policing or say something about parent-child relationships or the better nature of down-on-their-luck-gangsters, it is drowned in mediocre jokes and the constant violence and abuse his characters subject each other to.

Secondly, the script is a bit meandering and full of holes, missed opportunities and unfired Chekov’s guns. At least Chappie avoids the mistake District 9 makes, and makes very clear from the start that it will be a violent movie. But as I was watching it with Key, we were already discussing easy ways the script could have been improved, characters copuld have been made more interesting, or the plot could have been resolved with easy shortcuts that the characters apparently missed. This made me constantly question how anything was supposed to work: the sci-fi technology in this movie functions strictly as the plot demands, even if that contravenes other things we’ve seen happen on screen. That is a pity in a movie that is ostensibly about artificial intelligence and features a plot driven by technology.

Finally, I’m a bit irked by the fact that this is Blomkamp’s second movie set in Johannesburg, and that Chappie and District 9 effectively have a grand total of three non-white characters between them; only Deon in Chappie has a significant role, and he is played by Dev Patel, a British actor of Indian descent. Where are all the black Africans in Blomkamp’s Johannesburg? Truth is, they’re probably either rioting in the streets or barbaric crime lords. Makes you wonder.

In conclusion, is Chappie unwatchable? Certainly not – perhaps this review is making the movie out to be worse than it is because there are so many points where I feel it could have been improved. It doesn’t look too bad and the eponymous robot is charming and a pleasure to watch. But I’m really struggling to find a group of people to recommend it to.

I don’t know if I can add much to Peter’s review. Spotting plot holes that jerk you out of your suspense of disbelief is fun afterwards, but if you see them during the movie, that does not sit well with me. Chappie (the AI) is charming and his development into a gangster with a moral compass is fun to watch, but his ‘education’ by gangsters also brings up moral questions that the movie never answers. And why are poor people in Blomkamp’s movies always taken straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road? I still don’t know if he wants us to see them in a sympathetic or unsympathetic light.

My greatest disappointment was the flatness or superfluity of characters that could easily have had real intrinsic motivations. CEO Michelle Bradley (a waste of Sigourney Weaver) was only there to say ‘no’ to Deon’s wish to test his conscious AI and ‘yes’ to Vincent Moore’s ‘release of the kraken’, things both characters would have done anyway. And Vincent Moore himself… he could have been so much more than just evil. In the beginning of the movie, he almost advocated that a machine needs a human controlling it to keep it grounded, moral even – a claim he himself would (dis)prove at the end of the movie. But no, he was just cruel, with jealousy as his only reason.

I will be a little kinder in my rating than Peter, because despite of its flaws, I did have fun watching Chappie. When I decided to let go my critical eye and not take the movie too seriously, it was a nice ride to a semi-emotional happy ending.

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