When you have a movie that centers around the consequences of creating sentient and self-aware AI (Artificial Intelligence), the last group of people you’d expect to play a central role in a story with some debates about the morality of playing god with robots is a pair of South African satirical rappers who act a hell lot like wiggers and yet, CHAPPIE is the exception to the rule no one was expecting.
It’s a testament to the skill and imagination of director Neil Blokamp when you have a movie that takes its subject matter seriously while at the same time letting cartoon characters from the writer’s caricature of the criminal underworld run amok with golden AK-47s raised in the air and yet the final product comes out as a decent take on the genre.
Once again set in Blokamp’s favorite place of Johannesburg, CHAPPIE basically tells the story of how life in a crime ridden metropolis would change when the US drone program grows a pair of legs and decides to personally shoot people in the fucking face instead of flying around like a demonic capitalist eagle. Rather than play it out like almost every other fucking Sci-Fi story out there and establish a tried and tested plot featuring a ragtag group of rebels facing some faceless evil corporation that sells evil, CHAPPIE shows how all sides of the front react to the birth of the Scout robots, including their creators. In a pretty interesting take on the crime aspect of the story, CHAPPIE shows how both sides of the law deal with the rise of AI combatants, with the criminals at the end of their ropes and the creators in constant disagreement. Doing so makes the story’s setting even more believable than it already is, adding a lot of depth and humanity in the poverty torn urban metropolis of Johannesburg, a place that doesn’t look too far from what I call home back in Manila with the only differences outside of accents being the presence of blue and thinner Robocops patrolling the streets.
That being said, there’s actually three stories going on in CHAPPIE and the movie did a good job of balancing all of these yarns. On one end, you have the guys from Tetravaal who deal with the birth of AI in different ways and on the other you have the petty criminals who manage to get their hands on the titular Scout robot Chappie, who gets its very own story to boot. All of these arcs are well fleshed-out, showing how distinct characters react to their ever-changing world and ultimately how they interact with one another when they cross paths. Even if there are times when they act like cardboard cutouts such as Vincent being the Obvious Villain complete with sneering and all of the criminals being predictably shown as stupid and impulsive and even if the movie went out of its way to paint each character as either saintly or demonic through the use of excessively melodramatic slow-motion scenes, the movie manages to rise above these small trips and make the viewer give a shit about them, especially when a good half of them get shot down by the movie’s bloody finale.
When it comes to its most significant part, though, CHAPPIE fucks it up by depicting its debate about the morals of playing god by showing it in the most black and white fashion possible. I wasn’t expecting some BLADE RUNNER level of mindfucking but I was at the least hoping for the same level of gravity and seriousness in the way even the over-the-top original ROBOCOP movie did but here in CHAPPIE, you have clean cut good and bad guys. If you don’t like what the Saintly Dave Patel is saying, that could only mean you’re fucked in the head and you prefer Metal Gears over Robocop. What could’ve been the perfect avenue to show a simplified version of a very complicated ethical debate was instead watered down to the most basic of arguments, where the problems of a sentient robot being taught how to cuss like a gangsta are more relevant to Deon (Chappie’s creator) than the fact that the motherfucking robot somehow managed to learn everything about the connection between cerebral science and computer coding in the span of a movie. Many of the more personal and serious conflicts in the movie are concluded in a haphazard manner and powered by the almighty Deus Ex Machina, which is a waste considering the amount of care and detail put into the establishing moments with the cast. While the majority of the movie could be considered human in the most natural ways imaginable, the ending in contrast was forced, where things just suddenly end with “Happily Ever After” because the writers didn’t want anyone to be crying too much in the audience by the time the end credits rolled up.
There’s nothing wrong with happy endings but problems arise when they seem more whimsical than hopeful, which is what happened in CHAPPIE. The movie ends its little debate on the ethics behind artificial intelligence by merely skirting around the issue, ignoring all the possible ramifications such momentous scientific discoveries such as sentient robots and then throwing sunshine and daisies all over the place because nobody likes sad endings. In essence, CHAPPIE decided to tell all of its established character development to fuck off because someone had to make room for a MY LITTLE PONY marathon. To add salt to the wounds, the narrative path CHAPPIE takes to its ending is paved with a metric shitton of product placement, removing whatever bit of dignity there could’ve been.
Seriously, the level of product placement in CHAPPIE is fucking insane and it doesn’t even have anything to do with the number of brands that get two seconds of screen time before an explosion thankfully cuts to the next scene. Unlike MAN OF STEEL where there was just a big fucking overdose of ads in almost every goddamned frame, CHAPPIE goes the extra mile and makes these obvious ads a goddamned plot device to the point where it only made the diabetic happy ending even more laughable than it should’ve been when you stop to think about it.
It’s not as good as DISTRICT 9, the movie that launched Neil Blokamp into fame, but it’s a big fucking improvement of ELYSIUM which was even more laughable than CHAPPIE thanks to its simplistic take on space powered Obamacare and border security. Even if it doesn’t reach its lofty Sci-Fi goals mostly because it tripped itself with rushed conclusions and a Sony sponsored roadblock, CHAPPIE is something that should be appreciated for merely existing. In a time when original movies are as sparse as the next Tarantino film, flawed yet effective treats like CHAPPIE should be given a second chance in the same way its titular robot is given new life thanks to the efforts of different points of view.
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