In the near future, the South African police force has been replaced by indestructible and incredibly efficient droids designed, manufactured and controlled by a private corporation in order to take down rising gang crimes. But when their program designer develops a ground breaking Artificial Intelligence and secretly uploads it into a droid marked for demolition, it falls in to the hands of gangsters looking for an edge over the police for one last big heist.
I went into Chappie with high expectations, the film’s director Neil Blomkamp’s first film District 9 is not only one of my favourite science fiction movies of the last decade but one of my favourite movies of all time. Somehow I managed to avoid all advertising by closing my eyes and blocking my ears when the trailer played in cinemas and trying not to glance at posters for too long. I wanted to enter this movie fresh and base my opinion on its own merits without knowing anything of the plot, and it paid off. I had a grin on my face from beginning to end, scratch that, I had a grin at the beginning and it just grew and grew from there all the way to the closing credits.
The bulk of the story focuses on these gangsters (played by South African rap-rave group Die Antwood members Ninja and Yolanda Vi$$er) training Chappie (voiced and motion captured by frequent Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley District 9, Elysium, The A-Team, Maleficent) from a newborn to a cold hearted gangster, and taking advantage of his naive nature to steal money to pay back a drug dealer they are in debt to. The conflict between the morals his creator has attempted to instil in him and his Gangster captures (that he comes to think of as his Mommy and Daddy) leads to his moral struggle all the while learning compassion, conformity and self expression. All this is mostly played to comic effect but occasionally becomes surprisingly sentimental. The training Chappie undergoes with attempts at car jacking, target practice with various weapons and fire arms and South African gangster slang with his childlike broken english are light hearted fun against the backdrop of violent gang wars, social unrest and corporate bureaucracy but that all very much takes a back seat. What originally appeared to be the main plot (since all the Hollywood actors fill those roles) seems more like a subplot about a rival designer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) trying to get his own militarised version of a robot police force put forward and butting heads with lead designer Deon Wilson(Dev Patel Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Last Airbender) and the CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) of the corporation he works for, but it definitely feels like the B story coming up at the start and then only really coming back in to the play at the end again.
For those going in expecting a deep and thoughtful Nolan-esque exploration of the meaning of existence you will be sorely disappointed, even though it touches upon a couple of these ideas it in no way sets out to explore them instead using it as the backdrop for a fun action movie about a naive robot discovering what it means to grow up and make it’s own choices. Even though the film is about an Artificial Intelligence which is rich topic to explore (can there be life without death, nature vs nurture, what defines us our mind, our body, our soul) the movie isn’t focused on exploring those too deeply. At the end of the day it seems like Blomkamp made a conscious decision to put the heavy handed social commentary that bogged down his second film Elysium in the back seat to tell a leaner more straight forward action thriller.
While this definitely feels like a spiritual sequel to District 9 if not an outright sequel, there seems to be a lot of backlash toward Director Blomkamp after said Elysium left a bad taste in a lot of movie goers mouths and began a stigma of Blomkamp being a one trick pony. Personally I don’t agree with this.Yes it set in South Africa, yes it deals with Science Fiction elements with a gritty special effects driven main character, but if you go to see a Neil Blomkamp film what would you expect? He has a unique vision that stems from the surroundings, culture and world view he grew up in and that’s exactly what you get here but exploring different themes this time around. You don’t hear people complain when they go to see a Vincent Van Gough painting, get there and it looks like a Van Gough painting, and while I can agree that this retreads a lot of imagery and themes explored in other films, it seems the trend in Hollywood that if it’s done poorly it’s a rip off, if the movie is good on its own merits and it’s borrows from other things then it’s considered an homage and this movie definitely falls in to the latter category. The films walking tank “The Moose” is unashamedly the 1987 Robobcop’s ED-209 and of course Chappie himself is very much Johnny Five from 1986’s Short Circuit but as these are all things I love and grew up with (and obviously Blonkamp did too) it fills my heart with modern nostalgia.
The special effects on display here are second to none, and I cannot wait to watch the behind the scenes to see how it was done, Chappie interacts with actors and environments flawlessly. Little things like guiding him by his arm in to a van or chains of bling hanging around his neck blow my mind (his thin frame leaves nowhere for the digital strings of magic to hide yet) you would never question that a fully operating robot is acting there on set. The motion capture, voice and body language of actor Sharlto Copley mixed with the way the film utilises Chappie’s very minimal face design to convey such emotion makes it so easy to relate with him in times of fear, joy and very often childlike wonder. Watching Chappie develop from a scared child to hardcore gangster to a sweet-hearted saviour is the real heart of the film.
Now I knew Die Antwood were in this film but was shocked to see that they are really almost the leads, their dilemma and relationship really drive the story and to a mainstream audience I could see how these characters could grate but to me it was just so bat shit zany and comical that it was a nice change from all the stuffy straight laced performances you can see in any other movie playing at the moment. They seem to just be playing themselves or heightened version at least, they use their own names, wear clothing advertising their band and their music plays throughout, it makes no logical sense but that “fuck it” attitude just makes it even better. Dev Patel is believable as a scientist, Hugh Jackman while welcome is oddly cast (though I did like the tiny religious references to his character which motivates his character) and I could watch Sigourney Weaver sit in an office and have meetings all day unfortunately that is all she is asked to do here and criminally under used, however if all this leads to her being in Alien 5 which Neil Blonkamp has been rumoured to be directing then it was well worth it beyond my wildest dreams.
As you will soon learn, I am usually the first to pick out plot holes, logic flaws and poor character motivation and there are many here but I was just having too much fun and the momentum of the film kept up so well that I didn’t really have time to dwell and by the end credits I was too pumped up by the movie to care. The film moves briskly with a tight pace and the same urgency established in all his films, a couple of solid action scenes and lip service to what the definition of existence is but it’s in the comical and quieter moments like the relationship between Chappie and Mommy that the movie shines most. While I can completely understand that this movie is not for everyone (though I’m not sure what would you expect going in to see a movie with a talking robot) it is a fun genre ride, full of quirky characters, a playful lead character, tense action and mind blowing special effects, but if you’re expecting a little more than that like the exploration of consciousness just don’t be surprised that it’s not there. Maybe I’m in the minority here but if you’re a sci fi fan then “By the power of Greyskull” see this movie and definitely do not “just go to sleep”.
Review by Dylan Boaden
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