Dir: Neill Blomkamp
Writer(s): Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver
Synopsis: In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
Neill Blomkamp burst on the scene with his hit sci-fi/political commentary film District 9 and won everyone over with how great the film was, in both in storytelling and visual effects. He then went on to do another political commentary sci-fi film Elysium, which wasn’t welcomed by many and seen as a disappointment, even to the point where Blomkamp himself coming out a couple weeks ago saying he “fucked it up.” Now, Blomkamp returns with another sci-fi film in Chappie. While this one isn’t all together a political commentary film, it does bring up another question that has been asked in other films, but Chappie presents it in another format – Can Artificial Intelligence work?
In the near future Johannesburg, crime has become so rampant that the police force and a corporation, TetraVaal have teamed up and created a robotic police force that they call Scouts. Their creator Deon Wilson (Patel) however wants more. He takes it upon himself to create an advanced A.I. that will give a machine to ability to think and feel for themselves, and when TertaVaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Weaver) denies him the opportunity, he takes a recently decommissioned Scout and put the A.I. program in him. Meanwhile, three desperate criminals, Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Visser), and Amerika (Cantillo) who need to pay off a local crime boss, kidnap Deon and the Scout so they can get Deon to “turn off “ the Scouts and use the Scout to pull off a heist.
When Deon tells them he can’t really turn off the Scouts, he sees this as an opportunity and proceeds with his A.I. experiment which works. When the Scout comes to life, it’s Yolandi who dubs it “Chappie” (Copley). It’s here where things start to get complicated. Ninja wants to only use Chappie for the heist while Yolandi wants the childlike machine to find his own way, Deon wants the same thing, but also sees this as the next step in technology and maybe civilization.
Moreover, Deon has a rival of his own at TertaVall in Vincent Moore (Jackman). Vincent is a former soldier who has his own warfare machine – called The Moose – that doesn’t have the funding thanks to the Scout program. He has a combination of seeing the Scouts as obstacles and less superior to his Moose, but also jealously because his idea is constantly shut down. Everything, of course, comes to a head-on collision at the end.
While the human element is all there at the forefront and is the reason why everything in the story is happening, the real star of the film is Chappie. Sharlto Copley brings Chappie to life using motion-capturing and of course the team of animators. Copley brings the right amount of childlike innocence, naiveness, and humanity throughout the film that make you root for him and just want to watch him do whatever he does. Whatever problems you have in the film, Chappie should be one of – if not – the highlight and best thing in the film.
The other enjoyable performances come from the South African rap group Die Antwoord, Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, who play versions of themselves. They act as surrogate parents teaching Chappie what they know even though they don’t see eye-to-eye on how to raise him. Ninja wants Chappie to see the harshness of the world the hard way, which leads to a very heartbreaking scene and one that was hard to watch, while Yolandi teaches Chappie what it means to be a “Black Sheep.” Obviously, Deon doesn’t want Chappie to pick up on their activity and wants him to be the future. As for Ninja and Visser’s acting, they actually weren’t that bad. There is always that risk of non-actors taking away from powerful scenes because it isn’t their comfort zone, but the rappers handle themselves well. Ninja does play more of the aggressive one and is the least likable of already “unlikeable” characters. Of course they only act aside each other and with Patel and Cantillo, who does fine in his role.
Patel also does fine as Deon, nothing out of Patel’s usual reliability. Hugh Jackman is the “easy” villain, and I’m not taking about his mullet either. Jackman does seem to be enjoying himself. I will way Sigourney Weaver is heavy underused as the CEO of the company. She really doesn’t do much expect sit in her office and has verbal confrontations with Deon and Vincent.
So now we have to answer the question, does Chappie work? Yes and no. Blomkamp has said “I get so caught up in the concepts and ideas” which can be easily seen in the film. A lot of Chappie works as a sci-fi action film with great visual effects. A highlight is an extended fight scene with Chappie defending our heroes from The Moose. That’s not to say the film doesn’t great drama, because it does. The score is also great, although why wouldn’t it be since it is by Hans Zimmer. However, the question about A.I. comes and goes, and the beginning of the film says that the Chappie program has changed the world, then we get a title card that says “18 Months Earlier,” so we don’t really see how it’s changed the world and it is left up to us, the audience, to imagine it.
There are some messages that are flat out stated, like the Black Sheep message, but the message of whether A.I. is a good idea or bad is never really stated and even if you find it, it could get a bit muddy. There is also a moment in the film – I won’t mention the character’s name, but you’ll know it when you see it – that makes, even for a film, a really dumb and extremely dangerous decision even for the real world.
All in all, Chappie works on some great levels like Copley’s portrayal as Chappie, Die Antwoord, and the visual effects. But when it comes to answering the big question that is posed throughout the film, it lacks a bit in answering them.
4 out of 5