What makes us who we are? Are we born good or evil, or are we made that way? What is consciousness? These are the questions posed in Chappie (2015), Neill Blomkamp’s fun and witty follow-up to District 9 and Elysium.
District 9 is one of my most favorite movies because it does what science-fiction does best: it uses an unfamiliar time or unfamiliar place or unfamiliar circumstances to pose questions about who we are and what we do today. Chappie is no different. Set in Johannesburg in the near future, the police have employed a squadron of robots to do their most dangerous work. The benefit to human life is clear and Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is a hero for his development of the android cop-bots. Not so impressed, however, is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) a former soldier who has become an engineer and stands firmly behind the “MOOSE,” his over-the-top concept of an all-powerful crime-stopping machine. While the cop-bots are subject to the threat of hacking, something which Deon assures can’t happen because one needs a guard key to upload any changes to their programming, Vincent asserts that his MOOSE is superior because it’s controlled by a rational, moral human being. Keep those words “rational” and “moral” in mind when you’re watching this because they sure to do come around to bite Vincent in the ass.
Some additional backstory: Thugs Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika are forced to come up with $20 million to pay for the drugs they ruined during a job. They reason that if they could just figure out way to shut off the cop-bots, everything would be peachy. Meanwhile, when cop-bot #22 is damaged beyond repair, Deon takes this opportunity to load the artificial intelligence system he has been working on into the lifeless body. (Because, what self-respecting robot engineer isn’t working on their own AI system?) Events ensue and Chappie is born and left under the care of the three criminals.
I’ll admit that the plotting is a bit laughable and nowhere near as tight as District 9, but I’ll forgive it as it allows for some poignant and hilarious scenes. Ninja and Amerika train Chappie to be a gangster so he can help them pull off a heist and defeat drug lord Hippo (a lovely and constantly shirtless Brandon Auret). Seeing a robot pimp walk while wearing the words “hustler” cast in gold around his neck made me literally laugh out loud. On a different note, watching Ninja manipulate Chappie into participating in their crimes was a pointed commentary on how people who believe themselves to be good can be led to commit terrible acts. The moral message here may be a bit overwrought, but it’s still one that’s worth posing.
If you’re looking for a carefully scripted, nuanced, sci-fi drama, this isn’t it. But, if you enjoy big fight scenes, bumbling thugs, ridiculous dialogue, and robot-on-robot violence, this might be for you. I recognize that there are some pretty big flaws here, especially compared with Blomkamp’s earlier fare, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of it.