In near future Johannesburg, Robots have nearly taken over the police force and have brought the crime rate down significantly. Thanks to designer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the Robots have been a success for his company and head honcho Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Also working with Deon is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a man who detest the Robot police and is curious about Deon’s new AI project. Things seem to be going well for Deon, until he’s captured by some gangsters (Die Antwoord) and forced to build his AI, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), to help them.
Chappie is the latest and most interesting film from Neil Blomkamp, whose previous works include District 9 and Elysium. Turning his focus, again, to robots, Blomkamp sets up a story in his native Johannesburg that follows the maturation of an AI, along with a loaded cast that surprises in all sorts of ways. Blomkamp’s films all have societal messages and force you to dig a bit deeper if you want to know what he’s really saying, but that’s something I certainly don’t mind. As bizarre a concept as this film is, it’s definitely an interesting one that both entertains and stimulates your mind.
Neil Blomkamp grew up in South Africa, so naturally he films what he knows. Johannesburg is a perfect place to film, as it encompasses both a flourishing and dying society. Chappie comes into this world as a fully thinking AI. The best part is that we see Chappie develop and adapt to his surroundings like a child would. He doesn’t know any better, so he says and does what those around him do. His fears, dreams, and conscious actions make him a curious lead character, but you can’t help but grow attached the to robot he grows into. Watching him hurt is upsetting, which is something you’d never think would happen.
Sharlto Copley, as Chappie, brings a stunning amount of talent to the table with his motion capture performance. I can only imagine what it would have looked like watching Copley react like a young child would to most things. The excitement and fear that he’s able to communicate with his body and voice is phenomenal, as they’re what bring his character to life. He mimics the human behavior that he encounters, whether that’s good or bad, and begins growing into his own person. As funny as he can be when mocking gang behavior, it’s also alarming to watch him be influenced as easily as a human is (which is sort of what the film is about).
What I got from Chappie, is that humanity is what lies within. You can be a gangster or a technician, but what counts is what’s on the inside. Our external shells are what we choose to judge by, but reveal nothing about what that person (or robot) is like. Humans are also susceptible to other humans and their environments, evidenced by how Chappie grows with the gangsters. There’s the always prevalent distrust of AI’s and Robots to do human’s work, but that sits on the back-burner here. I’m certainly a fan of what the film has to say, even if it comes across somewhat goofy sometimes.
Interestingly enough the performances by the human’s were probably the weakest links in the film. Dev Patel probably emotes the most and offers up the best range, but he’s nothing too special in the film. Hugh Jackman’s character is overly maniacal for some reason, but at least he’s given more to do than Sigourney Weaver who has a total of maybe ten lines. Then there’s the South African rave group, Die Antwoord, who bring some pretty convincing characters to the film. They don’t do too much, but they definitely make an impact in the grand scheme of things. That being said, no human character really does much to “wow” the audience.
Chappie is certainly better than Elysium, but it isn’t quite on the same intellectual and serious level as District 9. Much like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s incredibly easy to get behind this non-human lead character and care about him more than any human in the film. Watching Chappie grow up is hilarious, shocking, and touching in the end. This film, to many, will seem utterly ridiculous, but I am all about Directors and Storytellers creating their art in unusual ways. Chappie’s not nearly as great as it could be, but it’s definitely another step in the right direction for Blomkamp and the SciFi genre.