Chappie could have been the best robot-action-family-drama of the year

Why does Neill Blomkamp's latest fail to compel?

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The commercials for Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie want to sell it as a wild ride about eccentric gangsters and fighting robots. And sure, that’s largely what it is, but it's also a film about humanity’s relationship with AI at the time of its emergence. Chappie is no Her, but its attempts to ask similarly big questions are what make it memorable.

There's been a lot of scorn directed toward Blomkamp recently, mostly after 2013's Elysium failed to live up to his incredible debut with District 9. Even if Chappie once again falls short, Blomkamp still deserves credit for telling original sci-fi stories rooted in real issues. District 9 was about apartheid. Elysium was about class warfare and health care access. Chappie is about consciousness and parenting. It may not get to the heart of either, but it tries. And when it works, it works.

At its heart, Chappie is a film about family, albeit a very odd one consisting of a robot, a few gangsters, and a genius programmer. This is a family formed out of necessity and circumstance, because Chappie, despite being the very first intelligent robot on the planet, isn't actually that smart — at least, not at first. In the film, AI learns much faster than any human can, but it still has to learn. And it needs humans to learn from. Chappie starts at the earliest state, a child, but it quickly learns to speak, read, play, and act somewhat independently.

At its heart, Chappie is a film about family

That conceit leads to some of the film's best moments. Chappie grows to deeply care about one of his adopted gangster parents, played by Yo-Landi Vi$$er of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, who he comes to recognize as his mother. Chappie also has an abusive father figure, a gangster played by Die Antwoord's Ninja, and his distant creator, a programmer played by Dev Patel. It's an incredibly dysfunctional family, and the movie takes many opportunities to explore that. We see Chappie's creator fighting over visitation rights. We see his different caretakers trying to impart their own sensibilities to him. It turns out, even gangsters are ready to love a baby robot.

It's tempting to compare Chappie to Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her, a pointed exploration of how humans can grow to love AI. Both reflect a shift in Hollywood narratives about AI: we're no longer scared of it, we're just worried that it won't love us. But Her has an advantage, because it is entirely about that relationship, with no big sci-fi action plot that it has to intermittently entertain. Her's human character, Theodore, is lonely and a little strange. Her's AI, Samantha, is perky and knows little of the world; a perfect foil. Samantha gets Theodore into the world and gives him something to talk to. As Theodore grows, so does Samantha.

we're no longer scared of AI, we're just worried that it won't love us

Her is able to make us care about Samantha and Theodore's relationship because we feel like we know both of them. Samantha isn't lacking in knowledge, but Samantha is lacking in experience. Samantha has to learn the same tough lessons about love and life that any human does, and that means an audience can grow to care about this thing that's represented by little more than a computer. (Okay, Scarlett Johansson's affectionate voice helps a lot, too.)

Chappie's finest scenes are when it's closest to emulating this. At one point, Chappie is reading a book in bed with his mother, who has to explain what a "black sheep" is to him. Eventually, she realizes that she has to explain that it's more about soul than appearance. "See, that's what Mommy loves," she tells Chappie, pointing into its hull. All at once, we see a robot experience humanity and a criminal show that she's capable of care and compassion.

It's moments like these that make it easier to imagine a quieter, frankly better, version of Chappie. But the moments exploring Chappie's humanity and humans' instinctual willingness to raise a child — even when that child is a robot — are few and far between. And the many other moments that could have been like that don't land because Chappie is never quite human enough, the way that Her's Samantha is.

Chappie's personality may be the real weak link

In fact, Chappie's personality may be the real weak link in the film — a weird mix between toddler, family dog, and excitable teenager. Chappie is simultaneously very smart — at one point, it somehow uses a brainwave reader to download its own consciousness, which seems fairly impossible — and very dumb, refusing to shoot and kill someone but not realizing that knifing that person will, in fact, also kill them. We're willing to accept the notion that an AI would start with the intelligence of a toddler and need to be trained by humans, but at some point, like Samantha, Chappie needs to learn how the world actually works — and it never does.

It's too bad, because the basis for a smart family drama is all here. How would an emotional robot that knows nothing of the world deal with having to split time between two families? How would that robot deal with parents who sell drugs and commit robberies to survive? Chappie never becomes smart enough for us to find out (the humans don't fare very well, either), and Chappie isn't patient enough to let that happen. Instead, an even bigger robot arrives and starts shooting stuff.


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