I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am often struck by the fact that paid movie reviewers typically love the movies that I can’t quite get into, and revile the movies that I adore. Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but this has more or less been true my entire life. In fact, I often use the reviews in a reverse fashion – high praise makes me think twice before heading to the theater, while criticism has me looking for movie times!
Neill Blomkamp’s latest film CHAPPiE is the most recent example of this fundamental disagreement. As far as I can tell, the reviews of the film so far have been lackluster. No one seems to think CHAPPiE is as original as Blomkamp’s District 9, and Deadline’s Pete Hammond goes so far as to say that: “Chappie is filled with the most unattractive, unlikeable group of human characters seen on screen in a long while.” WHAT?! Did we even see the same movie?! Before I get into all of the reasons why I think Hammond is wrong, here’s a bit of an overview.
In 2016, a mechanized police force has hit the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, bringing crime to an all-time low. While everyone – with the exception of criminals – seemingly likes the systems, the droids’ designer, Deon Wilson, dreams of something more. After nearly three years of work, he manages to create a program that, once implanted in a damaged machine, enables the robot to think and feel for itself. Yet here’s the catch: Deon and the droid (soon to be known as Chappie) have been kidnapped by a group of thugs (Ninja, Yolandi, and Yankie) who want to use the robot to pull off a big heist to pay off a criminal overlord of sorts. What follows is a fascinating – and at times funny – story about nature versus nuture, and what it means to be alive.
After Chappie becomes conscious, you see three camps emerge. One – with Deon and Yolandi – sees him as a child, something to be taught and loved. Another – made up of Ninja and Yankie – wants to teach Chappie how to use guns and assorted weapons to pull off their planned heist, viewing him simply as a machine with a job to do. A third – which is primarily a party of one, Deon’s colleague/competitor Vincent – thinks Chappie is dangerous, that robots should always have a human somewhere in the loop.
But as the story goes on, you start to see the sides change a little. For instance, after dropping Chappie off in the “real world,” Ninja and Yankie are visibly upset when he comes back extremely damaged. And while they do introduce him to more of Jo-burg’s criminal underbelly, they take the time to teach him some life lessons as well. By the climactic fight scene, it’s safe to say that they are both converts – protecting Chappie as fiercely as they are shielding each other.
Though Ninja, Yolandi, and Yankie certainly aren’t saints, they aren’t completely irredeemable either. They’ve been dealt a particular lot in life and are doing what they think will keep them alive. But they aren’t that one-dimensional either. (As for their appearance, that’s just how Ninja and Yolandi look – the duo makes up the South African rap group Die Antwoord.)
In terms of sophisticated technical know-how, another of Hammond’s complaints, I’ll admit that there isn’t a ton of it in the film. However, no one has actually created artificial intelligence yet, so I’m willing to give Blomkamp a pass on the details. Roboticists around the world are working on it though, so who’s to say it can’t happen that way?
In fairness to the professional movie critics, CHAPPiE does have a similar message as District 9 – to see past our differences, to move beyond our fear of the unknown – but with so much bigotry still existing in the world, perhaps we could do with a reminder that we are more than our circumstances, that family can be defined in whatever way makes sense to us, and that love and compassion can be felt for all things, man or man-made.