The word on Chappie hasn’t been good. Currently it has a 54% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it lower than director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up Elysium, which even the director has since admitted wasn’t all that good.
Haters can shoot it through the exhaust port. I loved it. Here’s why (spoilers follow).
First up, Chappie has this juxtaposition of dystopia and camp that I really love.
Dystopia: Robot policemen have been invented to deal with rampant crime in squalid future Johannesburg. Camp: Deon (Dev Patel), the scientist who created the robots and imbued one of them, Chappie, with consciousness, owns a calcuator watch, not one but two rubber chickens, and pulls inspiration from a cat poster.
Dystopia: Three of the main protagonists (The Walking Dead‘s Jose Pablo Cantillo and Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the band Die Antwoord), criminals who adopt Chappie into their group, are genuinely awful people who deal drugs and steal cars without a second thought.
Camp: Chappie has rabbit ears and really digs He-Man!
Dystopia: Chappie, though emotionally still a child, is manipulated by the protagonists into doing truly horrible things.
Camp: A scene where a robot plays with nunchucks and ninja stars. The whole aesthetic comes to a head in Hugh Jackman’s villain, an ex-soldier who’s willing to to kill hundreds of people just to appease his own machismo and prove his superiority at weapons-building… and he dresses like your friend’s uncool father and sports a ridiculous duck-tail mullet.
It reminds me a lot of ’80s actioners like Escape From New York, where anti-heroes abounded and characters were way over the top but shit was still fun. It’s an association I think Blomkamp was going for, given an opening sequence that is basically “Hey, this is RoboCop.” The whole movie can be read as an extended homage to–but not, I would say, ripoff of–’80s sci-fi. Hey there, Short Circuit. How ya doing?
Keeping with the ’80s vibe, Chappie is fun in a way that I really wasn’t expecting. After striking gold with District 9, Blomkamp went super-serious with Elysium, crafting a movie that hit you over the head with its THIS. IS. ABOUT. ECONOMIC. INEQUALITY. message. District 9 started with a good story as a foundation, and the social messages about prejudice and immigration naturally found their way in, while Elysium started with a social message and then tried to build a story around it. It just didn’t work. Blompkamp’s since admitted that, saying he loved the “satirical idea of a ring, filled with rich people, hovering above the impoverished Earth,” but ” the script just wasn’t there; the story wasn’t fully there.”
With Chappie he dials it back and tells a more modest story. There are definitely big ideas here, specifically regarding the relationship of human evolution and artificial intelligence (will we eventually build something that will replace us?), but while the trailer made it look very “We are going to share with you SUPER-IMPORTANT INSIGHTS ABOUT THE NATURE OF HUMANITY,” in the movie itself Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell play around with AI as a concept more than try to provide any definite answers about it. It bring a looseness that Blomkamp had in District 9, but lost in Elysium.
Further, it doesn’t present technological advancements in the AI arena as necessarily a bad thing–“We’re going to invent super-smart robots and they’re going to kill us all, ahhhhhhhhhh!“–so much as an extension of humanity that can be used for good or ill, just like there are good and bad humans.
The whole “Technology is bad, why must we play God?” thing is one of my least favorite sci-fi tropes, and I really love it when movies step away from that and present scientific advancement as scary, yes, and liable to be misused, but also desirable despite that. Interstellar did, and so did Europa Report (currently on Netflix Instant), where space travel leads to some truly horrible things but still isn’t demonized, because exploration may be dangerous, but it’s also at its core a magical, wonderful thing that humankind shouldn’t give up on. Looking at you, Transcendence.