Humans Are Terrible in Chappie, and That's the Point

Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi, coming-of-age film plays up the flatness of its flesh-and-blood characters to focus on the soul of its young robot hero.

Sony Pictures

Early on in its development, things didn’t look so good for Chappie, and not just because of its horrendous title. The director Neill Blomkamp’s adventurous decision to hire the South African, cult-hit rave duo Die Antwoord as actors didn’t appear to be paying off: Strife between the rappers and the cast and crew resulted in the group’s frontman, Ninja, being written out of a scene, a frustrated interview with a fellow cast member, and, reportedly, an incident with Dev Patel and a space cake. The styles of the first two trailers were so diametrically opposed to one another that it was hard to tell whether the titular robot’s journey was supposed to be a heartwarming fable in the vein of Pinocchio or a brutal action-adventure à la Robocop. The fate of the robot, though, was the least of everyone’s worries when the spots highlighted a manically one-dimensional, apparently technophobic Hugh Jackman sporting a mullet.

Now that Chappie has been released, it should be noted that all of these early fears have been realized. Hugh Jackman really does play a cardboard monster. Dev Patel actually acts and speaks like Die Antwoord’s Ninja fed him drugged sweets the entire production. And Ninja himself is so unlikeable that his entrance into nearly every scene is preceded by a disclaimer of his general unpleasantness by another character, and a visible cringe from every sentient being in the frame. Jackman’s mullet, tinged with a mustard-gold color on top that is nowhere to be found in nature, really is that horrific.

But the ineptitude of the human performances in Chappie is by design. In Blomkamp’s latest, the mortals and their particular quirks take a backseat to the titular robot, who is the first, according to the film’s eminently contemporary tale, to possess consciousness. Charged with raising the precocious, emotional robot like a child, Chappie's human guardians fail him every which way. But their repeated let-downs are only fitting for a story about the universal experience of growing up, even for one that replaces flesh and bone with titanium, and a fully active brain with a computer chip. Coming of age is messy, painful, and cartoonishly difficult—Chappie’s artistic choice to makes its humans caricatures only strengthens its argument for the transcendence of humanity all the way into cold steel.

Like so many other classic stories about childhood and trauma—Matilda, The Little Princess, almost anything out of Charles Dickens—Chappie grows up in a harsh environment dominated by foster parents who are ill-suited to the responsibility of raising a child. In 2016 in Johannesburg, a weapons manufacturer called Tetra Vaal Industries has successfully equipped the city with the world’s first all-robot police force. Newsreel footage shows that the world is generally content with this development: Crime has plummeted, and the titanium-clad robots ably shield human bodies from harm. Yet their creator, an idealistic young engineer named Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is eager to make his artificially-intelligent creations fully intelligent. He devises a program to instill consciousness in his robots, and when his bottom line-fixated boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), forbids him from installing the software, he secretly programs a damaged, child-like droid.

His grand, idealistic plans to rear Chappie on a steady diet of poetry go sour when a group of South African gangsters (Ninja and Yolandi as Die Antwoord, plus Jose Pablo Cantillo) kidnap Patel and forcibly adopt Chappie. In a rushed bit of narrative lead-up and one prolonged, exquisite action sequence between the group and the South African police, the film explains how the gang owe a local mob leader $20 million. The group lands upon the brilliant idea that Patel might have a “remote control” for turning the droids off during a grand heist; when he says that's impossible, they take Chappie for their personal bodyguard instead.

Blomkamp’s first feature-length movie, the Oscar-nominated District 9, implicated several levels of bureaucracy in perpetrating crimes of xenophobia and speciesism. Though the android-cop premise is ripe for a further exploration of profiling, Chappie is more about the unjust rule of law in the household than on the streets, but it's an angle that's just as brutal. Wilson wants to raise Chappie to read and paint; Ninja insists he learn how to walk with swagger, swear, and shoot. The disparities in their educational messaging, moreover, have some severe consequences: Wilson makes Chappie promise he will realize his full potential and never shoot a gun; Ninja convinces him that throwing switchblades into people’s necks just puts them to sleep. The simplistic extremes in styles turn these older characters into caricatures, but what child doesn’t remember growing up in terms of dizzying highs and emotionally gutting catastrophes? The lack of subtlety is the element that makes the story so painfully familiar.

Unsurprisingly for a film about the engineering of feeling, Blomkamp and his production team overdo it on stylization. The home that Chappie grows up in is a garage furnished in graffiti, bling, and moldering domestic appliances, an aesthetic inspired by the rave trappings of Die Antwoord's NSFW music videos and zef style. The cinematography, too, looks at times like it was ripped straight from a rap video, particularly in Chappie’s angsty teenage phase, when he’s trying to hang with the guys while also hung up on the morals that his Master instilled in his young mind. Hans Zimmer’s score is metallic, synthetic, insanely loud, and eminently danceable. The violence is grotesque, particularly when viewed through the lens of the young robot, who learns what it’s like to be hit, to be insulted, to feel left out. These slights sting keenly, even if it’s only bolts and joints that are spilling, not blood—though there’s plenty of that to go around.

The sensory overload might be too much for some, but Chappie ultimately draws a line between what constitutes the use and abuse of technology, a prescription that it generally follows. The primary villain in the movie is Wilson’s rival engineer at work, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has devised an alternate vision for the police force in the form of a drone-like droid that can be controlled remotely by a human called The Moose. For a robotic engineer, Moore is an exceptionally unthinking villain: His plot involves shutting down the android police force to set his Moose on the loose. When apprised of Chappie’s existence, his great ambition is to dismember the robot like a seasoned Luddite torturer. Moore pushes the limits of what constitutes acceptable villainery: Jackman, muscles bulging, Grinch-grinning, mullet mercifully stashed away in the Moose’s neurotransmitter when he demonstrates the firepower of his pet project, embodies the humanist polar opposite of Wilson’s compassionate respect for humanity. He’s a joystick-happy sadist who prefers his technology stone-cold, and preferably equipped with the capability to launch multiple bombs at once.

But it’s in these extraordinarily brutal sequences of one man’s warped, sickening virtual reality that Chappie makes its forward-thinking pitch—that there’s more humanity to be found in reproducing consciousness and bestowing individuality into titanium bodies than in controlling them. It’s this time-old message of humanity, adapted to fit with today’s technologies, that transcends the overpowering, at times clunky, cinematic vessel.