FINDS HEART, BUT NO ANSWERS
Film director Neil Blomkamp has taken an interest with the science fiction genre with an appetite for delving into fundamental social / humanism issues. This marriage between the two has cultivated two unique and very distinct feature films that began with District 9 in 2009 (which was nominated for an academy award for Best Picture) and Blomkamp’s sophomore film Elysium in 2013. With those two films both receiving commercial success, Blomkamp returns to this style of filmmaking with his next project titled Chappie. Does the movie shine like its predecessors or does stands in their shadows?
Set in the year 2016, South Africa’s Johannesburg is faced with a rising tide of violence and crime, requiring the South African government to look towards the company of Tetravaal in launching their cutting edge robotic enforcer units that are created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) and manufactured by Tetravaal’s owner Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). These semi-A.I robot units named “Scouts” have reduced crime in the city of Johannesburg drastically, furthering the order placement for more Scout units by the police force and shutting out Deon’s rival. Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose own robotic creation, a hulking machine that’s controlled by human intelligence, is on the brink of cancellation. Cracking the code on the illusive artificial consciousness, Deon scrambles to tests his newfound discovery on a damaged Scout robot. However, his joyous moment is cut short when Deon and his metallic test subject fall into the hands of drug dealing peddler crooks named Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones aka Ninja) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser). Naming the robot Chappie (Sharlto Copley), the pair attempts to teach its child-like intellect how to carry out a major crime heist, securing their financial woes of debt to a crime lord. Fearing Chappie’s educational upbringing, Deon struggles to control this particular situation, causing Vincent to use Chappie’s questionable motives towards his own advantage.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Similar to Blomkamp’s first film District 9, which was based off of his 2005 short film titled Alive in Joburg, his newest film is based off of his 2004 project titled Tetra Vaal, a eighty second advisement video for promoting the idea of robotic police officers in third world countries. Despite its considerable short runtime (shorter than ninety seconds long), the idea, along with a rough design / outline of how the robots will look like, are clearly represented and, a little bit over a decade later, are fully imagined in Chappie. Despite his sophomore film’s commercial success, Elysium (which I personally really liked) was met with mixed reviews from critics and viewers and plays second fiddle to District 9. Once again, Blomkamp returns to South Africa’s Johannesburg as the film’s backdrop setting as it would seem that the director of District 9 is trying to recapture the magic from his first film. While imperfect and problematic at times, Chappie somewhat achieves that same goal of being similar to District 9 with sci-fi grittiness and a great emphasis on characterization with its main protagonist, while also addressing philosophical questions on choices and social issues.
If Chappie feels familiar, that’s because it sort does with notable influences and comparisons from other feature films like Robocop, I, Robot, and even Short Circuit. Blomkamp takes those films and mixes his own concoction in crafting Chappie in a similar fashion to his previous works, using the future of science fiction to frame his story that blends real world grit, several prudent issues, and blockbuster action (a climatic third act sequence that is fun, exciting, and doesn’t feel too long). This resulting factor is what makes Blomkamp’s movie great, harmonizing an intelligent narrative that both futuristic and grounded in reality at the same time.
The film’s main problem is in its presentation of addressing those questions and issues. While Chappie raises the ideas of a fully functional A.I. robot and its theoretical ramifications along with the insight raising / educating a child (amongst others ideals), Blomkamp, however, doesn’t go further in answering those same ideas, similar to the ending found in Elysium. At the beginning of the movie, viewers are told that Chappie’s existence has altered the world completely, but we, as viewers, are never shown that or even told how. It would be seem that Blomkamp is leaving that up to a viewer’s imagination, but, after viewing Chappie, you feel sort of cheated and wanting to know aftermath of the movie’s events.
Chappie himself is the film’s main attraction and a great one at that. He’s brought to life (with the usage of motion capture) and voiced by Sharlto Copley (Blomkamp’s Michael Caine to Christopher Nolan movies). Both in front of the camera in the motion capture suit and fully animated in post production (hats off to the visual effects team), Copley’s performance of Chappie coping with human understanding and his own existence during various trials and tribulations are incredibly endearing to watch, creating a character that’s truly one of a kind and unforgettable.
With Chappie being the primary star of the film, the supporting casts, while most give solid performances on-screen, their characters arcs are not as quite as dynamic as they could be and sort of feel like generic stereotypical personas. This clearly is seeing in Dev Patel’s Deon and Hugh Jackman’s Vincent. While both deliver quality performances of acting, the film doesn’t give the two enough time to completely explore their conflicting fundamentals of intellect vs. brute force (a case between the two that’s both physical and mental ideologies) in a satisfying payoff for a science fiction flick. As a side note, Sigourney Weaver’s Michelle Bradley, the CEO of Tetravaal, is good (in terms of acting), but really is only in minor capacity.
The most interesting (perhaps strangest) choice comes from Blomkamp casting the rave-rap musical duo of Die Antwoord as Ninja and Yolandi. It’s even further interesting that these two musicians, who have little TV or movie experience, get the most screen time with film’s protagonist (Chappie) than the rest of its stars. For better or worse, Ninja and Yolandi (both using the real names in the movie) mostly succeed in their roles (a little cartoonish at some points) as Chappie’s parental figures with Yolandi as a nurturing mother and Ninja as a gangster father. Like most parents, they never see eye to eye a certain things as the pair fight over Chappie’s understanding of how the world works and how he should act. In addition, the pair brings their own styles to the feature, interjecting color and flair to Blomkamp’s otherwise gritty science fiction world, while also producing some scenes of humor and heartfelt moments.
Is Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie worth seeing? Yes, very much so. The matter of its opinion and likeability, however, will depend on the viewer’s mindset (whether good, bad, or indifferent). Its principle goal of exploring humanity creating a sentient artificial mind and the choices of right and wrong succeed in opening certain topics up to debate and discussion, but its big and palpable ideals and questions aren’t fully answered and left somewhat ambiguous by film’s end. Moving past that and few other rough edges, Chappie , while not as great as District 9 or Elysium, still delivers an inventive and noteworthy narrative, one that’s presented in Blomkamp’s unique way of filmmaking with great visuals, a bombardment of action, a fantastic protagonist character, and poignant sophistication. Whether you believe the movie stands as a cautionary tale for mankind’s pursuit of technology or the creative works of pure science fiction, Chappie, like its predecessors, does an excellent job in capturing an informative narrative with a sense of unknown discoveries that go hand-in-hand with its own consequential pitfalls.