Chappie: in need of a longer and better format to treat all its characters, narratives and themes

Neil Blomkamp, “Chappie” (2015)

In amongst the ruined buildings, the body count, the junk metal and unexploded cluster munitions that form the detritus long after the end credits of this cheerful movie have finished rolling, there’s a garbled message of sorts about taking charge of your destiny and being more than what you were born to be or what your circumstances have made you, along with an investigation of what consciousness and the soul are, whether both can transcend death and the limitations of physical biology. It’s this amalgamated theme that holds the film together and more than compensates for its stereotyped characters, the ragged story-line with frayed loose ends and an ending which needs a sequel to suck up the energy “Chappie” leaves behind.

The actual plot itself is not original and looks like something Mary Shelley and Isaac Asimov would have dreamt up together were they employed in an alternative universe as exhausted third-rate script-writers in a factory employing such people 16 hours a day, every day, with no time off for annual leave. I am aware of other reviews that have found bits and pieces of other films like Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” in the plot. In a future Johannesburg, with crime rates higher than the city’s tallest buildings, the police force has contracted out SWAT team functions to Tetravaal, a company specialising in automated military security … for the police and similar civilian law-and-order institutions. The company comes up with robot scouts, the dream child of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who spends his free time creating his own robots to keep house and an artificial intelligence program that miraculously bestows consciousness and sentience into otherwise inert machines. Deon needs an actual machine to test his program and a damaged robot police scout becomes his guinea pig. He uploads his program into the scout and – VOILA! – the machine goes live.

Three punks on the run (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser – Jones and Visser are members of South African hiphop group Die Antwoord), who need to steal $20 million to pay off Johannesburg’s biggest crime king-pin Hippo (Brandon Auret), find information about Deon and his robot scouts on the Internet, track him down and kidnap him and his sentient robot. The punks take charge of Deon’s creation (voiced by Sharlto Copley), christen it Chappie and, in their own questionable ways, teach Chappie how to survive in the criminal underground of Jo’burg, accept his differences and, er, somehow become a moral being and know the difference between right and wrong. In his own way, Deon tries to care for his new child in the way Viktor Frankenstein never did but Chappie becomes conflicted between the easy wealth promised by Ninja (Jones), Yolandi and Amerika (Cantillo) and the life offered by Deon which itself is as empty, meaningless and soul-destroying as that of the punks. At least the punks are able to choose where and how they’ll carry out their big heist.

Meanwhile, back at the Tetravaal ranch, Deon’s co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman) becomes disgruntled that their┬áboss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is head over heels in love with Deon’s robot scouts which are paying off handsomely for the company. (Though she’s not keen herself on Deon’s sentient robot scheme – Bradley is only interested in Deon as an inventor of future cash-cows.) After Bradley tells Vincent that she is cutting off funding for his own Moose automated law-and-order project, Vincent – an ex-SAS employee with psychopathic tendencies born of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic fantasies – vows revenge on Deon to the extent that he is willing to sabotage the company’s profits and existence, and next thing you know, both Chappie and Deon are fighting for their lives just as the punks will be fighting for theirs if they can’t pull off their heist with Chappie’s help and pay off Hippo.

The two-hour film simply isn’t a large enough vehicle to deal with the plot as well as the character development, let alone explore its themes and the social context in which Chappie has to learn right from wrong and how to deal with his dysfunctional parents and the local bullies. Chappie’s moral development, which for most humans would take more than a life-time or two (or three …), is collapsed into the space of five days, or however long his battery lasts; unfortunately that of his “parents” is rather slower, at least until near the end where Ninja realises he is losing all his friends to Vincent’s Moose creation. Everything in the movie – the plot, the sub-plots, the characters and the issues that arise – needs more time for a fuller treatment that a linear visual story-telling format cannot provide. The result is a film that, however good it looks, feels very unfinished and in need of at least another six months’ worth of refinement. Characters are as cartoony as can be and Jackman and Weaver hardly raise much sweat as the film’s ┬ápotentially more villainous or at least morally ambiguous characters.

The socioeconomic context in which downtrodden corporate worker-bee joins forces with other marginalised people against an enemy that turns out to be another shunned corporate worker-bee – one can sympathise with Vincent’s feelings of rage against his employer – is always present but never questioned or investigated in any meaningful way. One might hope (in one’s dreams) that in a sequel, Chappie can persuade his new family to forgive Vincent and urge him to join them in their struggle to lead a social revolution against the combined forces of corporate and state fascism, represented by Tetravaal and the future South African government.

One worthy message that viewers might come away with is that technological solutions to social problems, be they replacements for human labour (as in Deon’s robot scouts) or drone-operated overkill (as in Vincent’s Moose creation), can create further ethical issues and dilemmas. At least when the robot scouts are disabled by Vincent’s criminal wickedness, Jo’burg’s unemployment problem plunges with 150,000 new jobs – for unemployed human police officers. Other new jobs, such as combing the city’s abandoned outskirts for unexploded cluster bombs or cleaning up the burnt car wrecks and newly made Swiss-cheese buildings left behind by the cartoon violence, are beckoning for willing humans.