DIRECTED BY NEILL BLOMKAMP
STARRING: SHARLTO COPLEY, DEV PATEL, NINJA, YOLANDI VISSER, HUGH JACKMAN AND SIGOURNEY WEAVER
Neill Blomkamp’s third feature as a director sees him back on familiar ground, a not far in the future science fiction action movie set in Johannesburg. Unlike his début feature it’s not aliens that are the centre of attention this time but robotic police officers. Deployed by a large corporation to work alongside law enforcement and from the opening scenes it looks to be working well as humans and machines are shown working together to take down some extremely violent criminals. This is all framed around documentary style talking head interviews and faux news footage. From reading this you may well be thinking it sounds pretty similar to the opening of Blomkamp’s first movie District 9 and you would be right.
You may also be thinking robotic police officers working alongside humans, large corporation involved this all sounds a bit like Robocop. Yes the shadow of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece is writ large through much of Chappie which burdens the film from the start as it can never quite escape the shadow of its forbear.
After the introductory overload of information and quick cuts the film flips back eighteen months (and ditches the documentary angle for regular movie styling) and we get an introduction to the human leads. Dev Patel plays the young engineer responsible for the development of the robotic officers and he is flavour of the month in the corporate headquarters. Drawing praise from his boss (Sigourney Weaver) and envious eyes from fellow engineer Hugh Jackman. He has been developing a rival to the police robot but has found his funding cut due to his creation requiring a human interface to operate and it being considered to large and overpowered for urban police work. When we get to see his creation its not hard to see why either, its a huge, weapon laden beast not a million miles from the ED-209 seen in Robocop (yes another similarity).
Patel’s robotic officers need no such human mind to pilot them and being essentially people shaped can move quickly and nimbly in any environment. However he is not satisfied with simply producing robotic cops who obey all orders without question as when he gets home (inhabited by little robots that talk to him a la Blade Runner) from the office he spends all night working on a programme to create artificial intelligence and finally succeeds. Now just about anyone in the world could appreciate the massive implications of creating an artificial mind and how it might change society across the world yet when he presents it to Weaver her character is completely uninterested! For a CEO of a major corporation this seems incredibly short sighted and unbelievable.
Still this wonky script moment at least lets the movie get on with the plot. Patel steals a damaged officer and takes off in his van intending to download the artificial intelligence into it and see what happens. His plans are ruined though as he is kidnapped by a gang led by real life musicians Die Antwood who are formed of Ninja (bad tattoos and thug life walking cliché) and Yolandi (sensitive artistic type) here playing exaggerated versions of themselves. They reason that by kidnapping the engineer they can get him to shut down all the robotic officers.
Taking him to their hideout (an abandoned warehouse straight from an 80’s action movie) he is allowed to assemble his officer and install it with the software to bring it to life. Once Chappie is created (born) he is an absolute joy to behold like a cross between a young child and baby animal. He cowers and shrinks away from anything until learning it won’t hurt him. The child like innocence portrayed here is astonishing and within minutes the audience can’t help but love him as Patel and Yolandi try to nurture him. Unfortunately things start to go wrong almost immediately as Ninja wants to use Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley) to help them commit crimes. Ninja is incredibly stupid and has no concept that a child can’t go out and rob a bank within five minutes of being born.
This leads to Ninja going crazy and Patel (refereed to as Maker by Chappie) being kicked out of the warehouse leaving the robot alone with Ninja and Yolandi who he will go on to refer to as Mummy and Daddy. The next few scenes are incredibly uncomfortable to watch as Ninja attempts to toughen Chappie up by dumping him in a shitty part of the city where he is attacked by a gang of thugs. He manages to escape but is then picked up by Hugh Jackman and further tortured by having his arm sawn off and a computer chip ripped from his head (the technological McGuffin needed to bring Jackman’s own robot fully online). After this he is dumped in the street and left to fend for himself. It’s an easy criticism of cinema to say that films glorify violence and the director does seem to revel in it here as Chappie suffers horrendous cruelty. Later on when he gets to unleash violence on people its hard to know if you should be cheering or feeling ashamed for watching an innocent soul being corrupted.
Chappie eventually finds his way back to the warehouse and is patched up by Yolandi and another gang member. Finally some scenes of light are allowed as she reads him a bed time story and he gets to do some painting. Yet again this is ruined by the odious Ninja who is still determined to get Chappie to help them with robbing an armoured car full of money which they need to get out of debt with an even more stereotypical gangster type. This leads to some funny moments as Ninja tries to teach Chappie to be a gangster and has him walking with swagger and wearing lots of bling. Our robot friend can’t quite master swearing though “fuck mother” will bring a lot of laughs from the audience.
For all its dubious character moments (its hard to call any of the humans likeable except maybe Yolandi though even she could be accused of negligence and being under Ninja’s heel) the film is a triumph of design and details. The candy coloured guns carried by the gang, Chappie’s simple expressions, the dirt and grime of the locations. With so many modern blockbusters the fact you are watching effects can be painfully obvious and make the film seem artificial (The Hobbit trilogy being a huge culprit) but with Chappie it is hard to tell where the practical effects end and the CGI takes over it looks that good! One thing that does stick out rather painfully is the amount of corporate sponsorship the film has obviously taken to up its budget. Being a Sony production their branding is all over laptops and Vodacom (the South African arm of Vodafone) whose logo adorns a huge tower gets more screen time than a lot of the actors. This is made even more ironic as the corporation at the heart of the film is rarely taken to task for their actions.
From what you have read so far it may sound like a very bleak film especially whenever Ninja is around but his character does allow for the funniest scene in the film as he tricks Chappie into stealing a bunch of expensive cars. Our hero still having such an adolescent mind finds himself being drawn further into Ninja’s web at the promise of a new body as his will expire in a few days. This certainly helps to propel things along and make the two hour running time seem much shorter. A later action scene where Chappie and the gang face off with Jackman’s own robot is incredibly exciting and well shot.
Jackman’s character is a bit of an enigma, supposedly the bad guy of the piece his concerns about self controlled robots policing the city seem legitimate but he is fobbed off and then goes bonkers because his own robot is being ignored and falls into stereotype mode. He waves his gun around the office (which is ignored by everyone) and claims the robots are Godless and that Patel should join him at church. It seems like a bit of an easy option to make him the God fearing alpha male but at least the performance is full of conviction.
Amongst all the thug life posturing and third act carnage (the action does not disappoint) the nature of Chappie and what it means to be human seems to get lost. The film while terrific as a loud action spectacle needs to slow down and breathe at points, giving the audience more moments of Chappie learning and experiences that were not (almost) constantly violent could have elevated this to something special.
As it stands Chappie is a brilliant movie to look at and two solid hours of entertainment but its frustrating that it never answers the big questions it poses and displays a lack of emotion when more were needed. Blomkamp is proving an interesting director but as it stands he is yet to top his début feature and the jury remains out on whether he can find the balance between spectacle and substance.