Neill Blomkamp burst onto the conciousness of the average cinema going geek (like me) with the all-round excellent District 9, a smart, well designed movie that started as a thinly veiled allegory for apartheid-era South Africa and turned into a roaring, battle-suit driven action film. It's the sort of movie that gets you excited not only because it's damn good, but because as the breakout movie of a new talent you can't wait to see what they do next. What he did next, of course, was the dissapointing Elysium, which layered on the heavy-handed allegory and really struggled to be any sort of coherent thing in the end. Expectations corrected, he now has a third film, Chappie, about a police robot acheiving sentience. So, how does that fare?
I think it's safe to say that how much you enjoy Chappie rests almost entirely on your tolerance for the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord, who contribute two of the films' central cast. They're certainly a distinctive presence two of the three criminals that wind up with Chappie himself, but the "gangster" stylings - played with a mix of menace and comedy - could easily land badly. But more of that in a moment, because like both District 9 and Elysium, this is a film that wants to look like it's about "stuff", but is a little unsure about how to do it.
So in the near future Police Robots are supporting, and to an extent replacing, Human Officers on the streets with great success. They're produced by a (surprisingly not actually evil) megacorp but their lead designer wants to create real AI, and so uploads his prototype personality into a badly damaged Robot destined for scrap. On the way to do that, however, he is kidnapped by the aforementioned gangsters, now in hoc to a badder gangster and figuring they can leverage some control from the Robot Corporation. Because the plot requires sympathetic gangsters, we have a "real" baddie in the shape of a rival mech designer and his ludicrously non-police ED-209 knock off.
So yes, this is Robocop meets Short Circuit.
Once awake, Chappie is left with the gangsters "brought up" by them and it's here I think some audiences will lose the film. For me, it skirts the edge of being cruel to watch, with Chappie so explicitally an abused innocent it threatens to damage a largely fairly lightly toned film. Ultimately it stays on the right side for me, and gangster characters remain shabbily sympathetic, if under characterised and occasionally annoying. On the plus side, Dev Patel's AI designer is a solidifying prescence, and the story trots along at a good pace, probably stopping the weaknesses overwheming it. Chappie himself is a fantastic creation - a great design as both the police bot and his AI personality, and always a sympathetic and human presence.
In the end though, this dabbles with ideas it can't really control - emergent AI, police militarisation, parenthood, even the transcendant nature of conciousness (yes, really) but unlike Elysium, where this shortfall is right there front and centre, in Chappie the more intimate, small scale story lets it fade into the background a little. If you're interested in a deep movie about AI and the responsibilty of it's creation, go watch Ex Machina, frankly, because it's miles better, but Chappie succeeds as a science fiction crime caper on it's own terms, and thats good enough for me.