Action Chappie

Film Review: Chappie

March 6, 2015Ben MK

Ay, robot...

Six years ago, writer/director Neill Blomkamp made a splash with his feature film debut, District 9, a tale about (literal) illegal aliens in a dystopian South Africa. The movie was a sleeper hit; and four years later, he followed it up with Elysium, a sci-fi actioner that focused on the strife between the haves and the have-nots in and above a futuristic Los Angeles. Now, Blomkamp and his go-to actor, Sharlto Copley, are back with yet another story set in a down-and-dirty near-future world. This time, however, the movie's central character isn't a man, but rather a sentient robot — and his name is Chappie.


Think of Chappie as District 9 meets RoboCop, with a whole lot of flavor from South African punk-rap outfit Die Antwoord thrown in for good measure. The story begins in 2016 Johannesburg, where a highly-advanced robotic police force — the brainchild of Deon Williams (Dev Patel), an engineer at a weapons manufacturer called Tetravaal — has recently hit the streets. Known as scouts, these droid law enforcement officers run on a rudimentary A.I. operating system. But Deon is on the verge of an even bigger breakthrough: the world's first, truly artificial consciousness. He only needs a test subject.

As luck would have it, the ideal candidate emerges in the form of scout number 22, a droid so badly damaged in the line of duty that it's been designated for the scrap heap. But before he can imbue number 22 with self-awareness, Deon is kidnapped by Die Antwoord's Ninja and Yolandi (playing themselves, essentially), along with fellow gang member Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). They bring Deon back to their candy-colored abandoned factory hideout with plans to force him to shut down all the city's police droids, so that they can pull off a crucial heist without any police intervention. When Deon informs them he can't just deactivate the scouts en masse, however, they make him reprogram number 22 to do their bidding instead.

And so, "Chappie" is born. Though he may not be long for this world, for there are a couple of problems that threaten to put an end to his existence. One of them is his own damaged body; namely, the fact that his nearly-depleted battery has fused with his titanium chassis, making it impossible to replace once the juice has run out. And the other is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), Deon's competition at Tetravaal, a former soldier who harbors nothing but bitter resentment for the company's golden child, because CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) has cut funding for his own human-operated robot prototype — a hulking, heavily-armed mech enforcer he's termed "The Moose" — in favor of furthering the scout program.

Of course, it's not difficult to imagine the direction in which Chappie's story takes us next. From the moment the Moose first casts its menacing shadow on-screen, visions of a RoboCop versus ED-209 style showdown begin to dance like sugarplums in our heads. And Blomkamp — having already proven his prowess in crafting visceral action sequences with his first two movies — is more than happy to oblige.

The film serves up some fantastically white-knuckle human-on-robot and robot-on-robot battles, but it also counterbalances them with scenes that win us over with their offbeat humor and tickle our cerebrums with their thought-provoking ideas. From the notion of a soul to its transference from one corporeal vessel to another — it's all fair game here. And though Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell don't delve into too much detail in their exploration of these philosophical discussions, they weave enough of it into the fabric of the film to ensure that Chappie won't be mistaken for just another vapid blockbuster.

The real highlight of the movie, though, is the character of Chappie himself. Voiced by Copley and made real through the magic of motion capture technology and state-of-the-art computer animation, Chappie is a sight to behold — a rabbit-eared automaton who walks and talks with the awkward unevenness of a hyperactive seven-year-old riding the crest of a sugar high, who's also capable of inducing just as many "awws" as a two-month-old puppy.

But he's more than just a convincing special effect. Brought into being as a blank slate, Chappie is a product of his environment. He receives moral guidance from his maker, Deon, tips on how to be Jo'burg's "number one gangsta" from Ninja and Amerika, and unconditional love from his surrogate mother, Yolandi. Watching Chappie reconcile these different, oftentimes competing, influences and grow into his own person is to watch a performance as real as any other in the film. And isn't that, in essence, the whole point of the movie in the first place?

The Bottom Line Chappie may be the first movie of 2015 to tackle the subject of a self-aware machine, but it certainly won't be the last. With movies like Ex Machina and Avengers: Age of Ultron due out in the coming months, only time will tell which will be the year's most compelling treatise on the subject. In the meantime, writer/director Neill Blomkamp's third feature offers moviegoers plenty to keep their senses occupied. Action-packed, funny and thought-provoking, it truly is a blockbuster with brains.  Ben Mk

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