Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sharlto Copley, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Johnny Selema.
South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp is best known for his breakthrough feature District 9, which was an ambitious mix of high concept science fiction and allegorical social commentary about many of the issues facing contemporary post-apartheid South Africa. His follow up film Elysium was a similarly ambitious mix of dystopian sci-fi and social realism, but it was less successful. Blomkamp’s latest film again mixes sci-fi tropes with generous doses of spectacular and violent action and social commentary.
Blomkamp paints a rather bleak picture of Johannesburg in the near future, a lawless cesspool of a city overrun by criminal gangs, drugs, violence, and gang warfare. The regular police force has been unable to cope, and have taken to using armour plated robot droids, created by military technology company Tertravaal, to enforce the law. The robots are the creation of nerdy tech Deon Wilson (played by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel‘s livewire Dev Patel).
But Deon is also working on a side project to create artificially intelligent robots that can read, think and create beauty in a morally bankrupt world. When one of the robot cops is severely damaged during a drug raid and is due to be destroyed, Deon seizes his opportunity. He rescues the droid and manages to upload his program into it. The robot is able to learn and evolve quickly, and soon learns to think and feel for itself.
The only problem is that both Deon and the robot have been captured by a couple of criminals (Ninja and Yo-landi Visser, from South African rap group Die Antwoord, playing largely fictitious versions of their own outlandish stage presence), who have other plans. They want to use the robot in their heist to get money they owe a far more vicious gangster named Hippo. Deon worries about how Ninja is corrupting Chappie and perverting science and technology for his own criminal gain.
Chappie is an endearing creation, and the audience does develop an empathy for him, in much the same way they developed an empathy for the robot in Short Circuit thirty years earlier or WALL.E . Chappie is voiced and played by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, via motion capture technology, which is superbly integrated into the live action. There is some humour in seeing Chappie the robot talk and act all gangsta, wearing bling, and learning to use a gun and ninja throwing darts.
Meanwhile, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, with an 80s mullet and tight shorts) is a rival engineer jealous of Deon’s success. He has created a massive but expensive and ugly looking, heavily armed ED-209 robot, nicknamed the Moose, which has military capabilities, but which was sidelined in favour of Wilson’s more friendly prototype robot cop. But he sees an opportunity to discredit Deon and put his creation into play. It all hinges around something called the guard key, a universal tool that has the power to shut down the robot cops.
As with District 9, Blomkamp uses fake television news reports to quickly give us the backstory and set the scene. The CGI rendered special effects are quite good, and the production design creating a decayed Johannesburg is also realistic. And the visual effects created by the WETA workshop are also quite good and realistic. Blomkamp and his regular cinematographer Trent Opaloch create a distinct visual contrast between the clean, crisp high tech world that Deon inhabits and the decaying, blighted urban environment that is home to Ninja and his cohorts.
Chappie is an extension of ideas Blomkamp first explored in his short films Tetra Vaal (2004), Tempbot (2006) and Adicolour Yellow (2009). Robocop was obviously a huge influence here, as are numerous other films exploring robots and concepts of artificial intelligence. There is plenty of action here, staged with gusto by Blomkamp, although much of what transpires here will seem vaguely similar to much of District 9.
Patel unusually plays an action hero here and acquits himself well in a more physically demanding role, and is a sympathetic protagonist. And the usually likeable Jackman is cast against type as a villain here, and he brings a laconic quality to his performance. This is not Jackman’s first time appearing in a movie about robots as he previously starred in Real Steel, about fighting robots. Sigourney Weaver has a small role here as Michelle Bradley, the tough as nails CEO of Tetravaal, and she brings gravitas and plenty of baggage, having appeared in sci-fi classics like Alien and Avatar. And Visser also brings a poignant touch and a sense of warmth and compassion to her role in which develops maternal feelings for Chappie and tries to protect him.
But Chappie the film is also a little uneven tonally, and the black humour sits uncomfortably with the broader themes Blomkamp is exploring, such as what it is that makes us human.