I wanted to like this, so badly. I wanted to enjoy myself, and to also feel the might of Neil Blompkamp saying “watch and learn, kid”. What made cinema so magical and such a revolutionary success back in 1895 with the Lumieres’ and Georges Melies’ films was the fact that the general public had never seen anything like it before. The sheer fact that images were moving freely on one sole fixed screen was until then completely unimaginable. You never knew what was going to come up next, and that is what made this art form so exciting back then.
Still today, a film is effective if it manages to stun audiences and explore topics further than they ever have been before. Going to the cinema today can be considered a learning process: Be it about love, music, science or anything else, a film is as strong as whatever new value or piece of information you take away from it is.
Neil Blomkamp’s third feature-length film explores the possibility of artificial intelligence in the near future through the creation of robotic police authorities. Following an experiment led by one of the robots’ programmers comes the birth of a robot with a mind of its own, named Chappie. When Chappie is stolen and his capacities used for other purposes, the “manhunt” begins against this new form of intelligence and robots everywhere.
Although we have seen it become extremely popular amongst filmmakers in the last year or so, the topic of artificial intelligence is still a new and very much exciting issue. As cheesy as it may sound, the topic is like a newborn, still growing and quite vulnerable, and must be handled with care. The topic in science is still in progress, as is the way it is discussed in film, too. Therefore subtlety and innovation are key when making a film about artificial intelligence.
Unfortunately, Chappie places the topic of AI in an aggressive and brash Hollywood blockbuster setting. Instead of exploring the possibilities of science, consciousness and overall progress in a tasteful and inquisitive manner, watching Chappie felt like witnessing the birth of Fast and Furious and Transformers’ lovechild – an explosive, vulgar and gratuitous lads flick.
The film merely skims the surface of the real issue and belittles everything and everyone involved. Why reduce brilliant actors such as Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman to extremely superficial roles, while putting the spotlight on South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord? What was the goal? How can one portray consciousness as a simple element that can be taken and transferred from one person to another like a piece of clothing?
At every new plot twist, new questions on the overall coherence of it all arose. Trying desperately to find meaning and to give the film some form of credit, I did try to put myself in Blomkamp’s shoes: Is Chappie a mockumentary on the dangers of artificial intelligence? Or a genuine fiction, using some sort of reverse technique showing the entirety of this robot’s capacities, starting by its negative ones? The portrayal of the robotic protagonist is another source of frustration for this reviewer.
The audience is granted with the odd moment of sensitivity and true altruism from the A.I, but the majority of the time Chappie is simply subject to manipulation, no longer being a simple robot being programmed, but now a conscious mind being meticulously exploited. The film’s “hero”, parading around the ghettos with his gold chains and poor grammar, is in effect quite saddening to watch.
Chappie seemed extremely promising; a new science fiction hit combining the very serious topic of artificial intelligence with witty humour and brilliant acting. However this is not what I was met with, and I am still searching for a positive thing to say about this film, and trying to figure out what it really is trying to convey. Whatever it is, I’m very sad to say I just did not get it.
Originally published on Epigram