There’s an unmistakable religious metaphor threading through Chappie, the latest high-strung, frenetic science-fiction movie from District 9 and Elysium writer-director Neill Blomkamp. The titular character is the first truly sentient artificial intelligence in a near-future world of obedient robot cops and other grubby-but-sophisticated tech, and one of the first real signs of his independence comes when he realizes he’s been incarnated in a discarded robot-cop body with a fused and dying battery. He confronts his creator, well-meaning but narrowly obsessive roboticist Dion Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) with a question many human beings have mused over themselves: “Why did you make me so I would die?”
But much as Blade Runner’s replicant creator Tyrell dodges the same question when his creation, Roy Batty, expresses frustrations about mortality, Dion defers with a comment about Chappie’s accomplishments, then instantly moves on. The moment winds up as a rote echo of a better film, rather than an inquiry into something bigger. And then the frantic action resumes. While Chappie eventually loops back to the metaphor (see The Reveal), it never winds up with anything particularly interesting or effective to say about life, intelligence, religion, the nature of consciousness, or any of the other big themes it deliberately evokes. It does, however, blow up a lot of stuff.
Chappie opens on a Johannesburg, South Africa that’s finally turning its crime problem around, thanks to the bot-cops Dion designed for weapons company Tetravaal, run by generic corporate flak Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). His humanoid robots aren’t sapient, but they’re smart enough to determine targets, create battle plans, fire weapons, and act as nearly impervious shields for human cops. Competing engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is ravingly jealous of Dion’s success, which has sidelined Vincent’s own pet project, an immense war-bot clearly designed after RoboCop’s ED-209, but designed to be controlled by a human operator via neural helmet. So when Michelle shrugs off Dion’s sentience software as immaterial—why would a weapons company care about a theoretical robot that can appreciate art and write poetry?—and he steals a badly damaged robo-body to test his software, Vincent is waiting in the wings to take advantage.
Complicating the matter considerably: A small group of desperate thugs kidnap Dion to wring secrets about the robot-cop program out of him. Ninja and Yolandi (two members of South African rap-rave outfit Die Antwoord, operating under their own names, and sporting clothes advertising their own band) claim custody of Dion’s childlike new project, putting their own name and imprint on Chappie as he develops from wordless, cowering tabula rasa to a needy syncophant trying to please all the abusive ersatz parents in his life. In particular, he gets moral lessons lobbed at him from two equally unpleasant perspectives: Dion’s nuance-free “Just say no” shouting, and the thugs’ expedience-rooted, gangsta-flavored form of desperate survival, summed up as, “Either you’re a live dog or a dead dog.” There are so many big ideas at work at various points in Chappie, and the struggle for his soul between multiple parents, all driven by selfishness, self-righteousness, and a desire for control, is one of the more potentially compelling ones. But that, too, winds up getting a sub-Pinocchio treatment, again in a rush to get to more action.
Blomkamp proved in District 9 that he has a rare talent for breathless but clearly staged action, and a taste for stories that move at lightspeed, without spending much time lingering on any one moment or emotion. His visually junky aesthetic, rooted in a fascination with the run-down slums of his Johannesburg hometown, lets him make movies that look and feel like no one else’s, because they’re so specific to a time and place. And both his previous features similarly show a leaning toward major metaphor and smart underpinnings for his jittery, nervy, daring stories about desperation and deprivation.
But he’s never fully fused his frantic plotting with his deeper thinking. District 9’s unsubtle but empathetic apartheid metaphor came closest, while Elysium’s haves-vs.-have-nots messages about health care and financial privilege were suffocatingly heavy-handed. Chappie falls between the two, as it struggles not to overplay its philosophical questions, but at the expense of never really letting them land. The film underlines the point with Chappie himself, a CGI creation voiced by Blomkamp’s longtime friend and three-for-three film partner Sharlto Copley. While Chappie is designed to be endearing, with mobile, weirdly extraneous face-handles that look like a smile and a raised eyebrow, and hugely expressive rabbit-ear antenna taken from Masamune Shirow’s influential 1980s manga/anime classic Appleseed, he’s still mighty grating. Operating mostly in a plaintive, submissive whine, he’s a figure of pity, a damaged child trying to grow up quickly and get out of the house before his overly large, demanding family breaks him. But under Ninja’s tutelage, he also has all the smug swagger of a teenager who thinks he’s achieved perfection. He’s annoying as only children can be, but in a variety of ways taken from different ages, and without many of the emotional compensations of real kids.
Chappie’s biggest problem is the degree to which it echoes other films: Its delving into the nature and uses of machine consciousness walks the same basic ground as RoboCop, which already had a belated, flawed retread only a year ago. The Blade Runner and Pinocchio elements are overt, but even more minor films like Splice work their way into the mix, and there’s a considerable, unfortunate dose of cutesy Short Circuit action and characterization, right down to the way Chappie’s eyebrow-handle mimics Johnny 5’s expressive eyebrow-esque lens-covers. The rip-roaring action sequences, the South African setting and accents, the almost comedically idiosyncratic weirdness Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser bring to the table, and the attempts to tap into the big questions all give it plenty of surface-level uniqueness and drive. But the core is familiar stuff, right down to the ridiculously overplayed showdown between Good Robot Guy and Evil Robot Guy. Chappie himself keeps asking the big questions, but Blomkamp never seems willing to slow down long enough to suggest that anyone is listening—not the characters, and not this messy, indifferent, frothingly angry world.