Neil Blomkamp first burst on to the sci-fi film landscape in 2009’s with District 9, after a failed attempt at directing a Halo movie with Peter Jackson, and has remained a director to watch since for his unique grungy technological aesthetic and a tendency to sneak a modicum of political commentary into what he claims are purely action flicks.
After a somewhat muted response to his first real “Big Hollywood Picture”, Elysium, which still made more money at the global box-office than District 9, he returns to Johannesburg as the setting for his latest glimpse into the future: Chappie.
In a city where scout robots, produced by Tetravaal, have been deployed to the police in response to the increasingly out of control crime epidemic, criminals are now completely outclassed as the droid cops efficiently take them down. Small time gangsters NINJA (Watkin Tudor Jones), ¥O-LANDI (Anri du Toit), and Yankee (Jose Pablo Cantillo) are stuck with a massive debt to local gang lord, Hippo (Brandon Auret), and decide to kidnap one of the inventors of the scouts, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), in the hope of gaining an “off” switch for the droids. Thanks to some extremely unlikely coincidences, the gang instead end up with a robot with a freshly installed AI consciousness of Deon’s creation, one that can’t even talk or follow basic instructions. Now, the gang have only a few days to try and turn the newly christened Chappie into a gangster while Deon intermittently tries to inspire his AI to reach for much nobler pursuits, all while Tetravaal slowly realises an important piece of their technology is missing and head of rival project, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), gets more and more suspicious of Deon and his pet project.
While the trailers made Chappie look like some cross between 80’s favourites Short Circuit and Robocop, the final film is both more and less than this implies. Blomkamp’s world building is again on top form as he uses library footage and Anderson Cooper (!) to provide a near-future history of droid law enforcement, but this goes somewhat off the rails when he has to resort to dunderheaded criminal plots and a series of coincidences just to introduce his friendly AI to the story. Once Chappie does show up, he is a charming creation. Sharlto Copely’s voice and physical acting (he performed the role on-set and was replaced digitally with Chappie later) endearing him to the audience almost immediately. Both NINJA and ¥O-LANDI , as versions of their on-stage alter ego’s from South African rap-rave group ‘Die Antwoord‘, also do great work as his ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ , taking turns to influence his development. NINJA attempting to toughen him up, sometimes brutally, for one last big score, and ¥O-LANDI trying to nurture the softer side of the nascent AI. Some of the funniest scenes of the film come from Chappie’s attempts to be follow NINJA’s directions to be more “gangster”.
It can feel like “Die Antwoord: The Movie” at times though, with the group’s music blaring in the background of many scenes, their lair dotted with graffiti relating to the bands work and NINJA and ¥O-LANDI even wearing “Die Antwoord” T-shirts soimetimes. In a weirdly self referential move, ¥O-LANDI even wears a Chappie T-shirt in the climax. Thankfully, the rappers do a sterling job, despite their somewhat ridiculous appearance.
Patel’s Deon tries to aid ¥O-LANDI and inspire Chappie to go beyond the limits of human intelligence, but suffers in comparison to the other leads, coming off as weirdly wide eyed throughout the film and spending most of the time incredibly over enthusiastic or fearing for his life. Jackman & Weaver fare no better, with Jackman’s ex-army rival project lead Vincent coming off as unlikeable and brooding from the start in his khaki shorts and mullet, prowling around the office with a gun holstered at his side. No real motivation is ever given for why he is so invested in his own robotics project, “The Moose”, only that he is obsessed with equipping it with bigger and bigger guns. Weaver is given even less to do as the head of Tetravaal, playing referee between Deon and Vincent.
Of course, Blomkamp frames his pictures as action moves and Chappie doesn’t disappoint when “The Moose”, a bipedal, remotely human operated, flying tank finally gets loose, taking on Chappie and chums as well as Hippo’s gang. After these impressive action scenes, an examination of the nature of consciousness comes out of nowhere, but by that time you’ll either be invested enough to not care or you’ll have checked out already.
Despite these misgivings, the film can be very touching at times. Chappie is incredibly expressive and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel for the poor little fella when some of NINJA’S harder lessons end very badly for the droid. It helps that many of these sections are soundtracked by Hans Zimmer.
Chappie manages to be funny, touching, and a little bit crazy that works best when it either concentrates on its leads or is spraying blood all over the screen. It’s sure to split audiences right down the middle, but shows that Blomkamp still has a great eye for both action and for the future.