After his 2013 misfire Elysium, Neill Blomkamp tackles artificial intelligent in his latest South African-based sci-fi flick, Chappie. The Oscar-nominated director shall be forever remembered for masterminding the world’s first AI-based gangster movie, as he not so subtly – but all too hilariously – turns usually intelligent subject matter into a chav-tastic spectacle full of bling-wearing robots, shoot-em-ups, and bad ass rappers.
After the introduction of police droids to aid the South African authorities fight crime, the country has seen a dramatic decrease in unlawful behaviour. When a group of criminals, led by the unconventional couple Ninja and Yolandi (played by South African rap group Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser), are forced into planning a major heist in the heavily-policed Johannesburg, they steal a re-programmed droid, Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley), from its “creator”, robotics maestro Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). The machine – now with the ability to think and feel for itself – like a newborn kid, has to learn right from wrong as the engineer – who is allowed access to his invention – tries to keep the droid on the straight and narrow. Things become complicated for all involved, however, when Wilson’s bitter co-worker Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) – annoyed that his own robotics work has gone down the proverbial toilet – sets out to destroy Chappie for his own personal gain.
Unlike 2014’s easily forgettable Transcendence and this year’s well-received AI flick, Ex Machina, Blomkamp’s film feels especially science-lite in comparison. Chappie is more like being sucked into the middle a warring custody battle between two sets of parents fighting over their metallic hunk of joy of who is growing up quickly in front of all our bewildered eyes. Any real science talk would feel like unnecessary mumbo jumbo as our robotic baby is peppered with two contrasting world views which it struggles to compute – one from its goody two-shoes creator, and the other from a bunch of crooks.
As the film descends into the territory of rap music parody – lead by the Die Antwoord duo – complete with gold chains, slow-motion walking and constant clarification that what’s transpiring is very “gangster”, it all feels extremely farcical, yet strangely enjoyable in an ironically amusing this-is-so-ridiculous-it-kind-of-works way.
As Jackman goes full Aussie as baddie Vincent, his own story fades into the background as all eyes remain firmly focused on the strangely endearing talking robot. Chappie does struggle to get out of first gear until its latter stages where it drops the facade that it is anything other than an over-the-top, machine-bashing riot that is certainly more stupid than brainy, yet unashamably likeable.