As big brains like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warn of the threat of artificial intelligence, it’s no surprise that it’s as popular- a subject as ever in the film world, with two films coming out about it in close succession.
Hot on the heels of Ex Machina comes Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, for which he returns to his South African roots after 2013’s Elysium. But where Alex Garland focuses on a beautiful female robot indistinguishable from a human in a calm and cerebral thriller, Chappie focuses on a reprogrammed police robot with an infantile new mind and all the explosions he gets himself into.
It’s unfortunate that Chappie follows Ex Machina so closely in the schedules, as Ex Machina sets a high bar which even Chappie himself can’t jump over. While Ex Machina takes the popular theme of AI and explores it in new and exciting ways, Chappie has more of a sense of déjà vu. The set-up, with new policing robots coming down heavily on crime, is very close to that of Robocop, complete with an evil corporation serving as the film’s main antagonist. Where it’s more original is in its visuals and setting, wisely returning to the gritty Johannesburg of District 9. Set mostly in a dilapidated building somewhere in the city, it’s another welcome break from the never-ending stream of major sci-fi films set in New York or Los Angeles, and shows why Blomkamp is the perfect choice for the new Alien movie.
Like District 9 it adds sort of-documentary bits to set the scene, and seamlessly blends CGI with naturalistic photography. But it lacks the emotional pull, in spite of the enormous potential of its set-up. There’s no-one we can really relate to, even though on paper several of the characters should be more appealing that District 9’s hapless Wikus. It’s an improvement on the decent-but-unfulfiling Elysium, however, with more memorable scenes and generally better sci-fi.
Ever-reliable Blomkamp discovery Sharlto Copley lends his voice and movements to the robot, as it gets involved with gangs and criminals, but something about the character doesn’t resonate emotionally. As it descends into an explosionfest it becomes less enjoyable, and once again a film of the quality of District 9 is just beyond Blomkamp’s reach.