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2015 is the year about Artificial Intelligence. Alex Garland’s directional debut Ex Machina has already released in the UK and there will be more A.I. action in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Terminator Genysis. In the mean time, there is Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, based on his own short film Tetra Vaal which sees the South African director lift heavily from his own District 9.
In the near future, Johannesburg has been about to massively reduce crime levels by becoming the first police force to introduce indestructible robotic droids with the company Tetra Vaal supplying the products. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the man credited for making the droids and he makes a scientific breakthrough by creating the world’s first self-aware A.I. programme. But Deon faces obstacles in the form of his boss, Michellle Bradley and an ex-soldier turned engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who wants to prove the worth of his human controlled battle drone, The Moose.
In the Joberg underworld a criminal leader Hippo (Brandon Auret) demands a three man gang, Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones, stage name Ninja), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) and America (Jose Pablo Cantillo) pay him 20 Million Rand within seven days. They only way to pay him is to commit a big heist and kidnap Deon with the aim to turn off all the droids. Yet they take his creation a robot capable of learning (Sharlto Copley) with only five days of battery power.
Blomkamp reteams with his District 9 co-writer and wife Terri Tatchell and the pair do use their debut feature as a template for Chappie. Both movies start with a documentary opening with talking heads setting out the world, a weapons corporation based in South Africa’s largest city having some sort of law enforcement role, a fearsome crime lord who plays a part in the storyline and Hugh Jackman plays a similar role to David James, both are military type who harbors a hatred for their movie’s sci-fi creation, alien or robots. All three of Blomkamp’s movies has a ticking bomb of some sort, Wikus was turning into an Prawn, Max Da Costa was dying of radiation sickness and Chappie is losing power. Blomkamp too comfortable with this structure. As well using elements from Blomkamp’s own films, there are similar themes to the 1987 sci-fi classic Robocop with both movies set in cities with notorious reputation of violence crimes, a subplot involving in rivals within a company and The Moose being a bit like ED-209. Parts of Hans Zimmer’s score was reminiscent of The Terminator, an emotional beating sequence like in Short Circuit 2 and there are plot elements that were similar to 2014’s Transcendence and Lucy. Chappie is more sentimental than District 9 and less humorous then Blomkamp’s debut.
One of the strength of Blomkamp as a filmmaker is special effects, he started his career as a special effects artist. Chappie is no acceptation with the movie having a photo-realistic look and the robots blend in perfectly with the environments. Blomkamp does not uses as much shaky cam for the action sequences which he has been too reliant on when he directed Elysium and Chappie has some strong action sequences, even if the brightly painted guns were a small distraction. But for people hoping for a full on action-fest will be disappointed as the action bookends the movie, the middle has hardly any action with Chappie told not to fight.
Sharlto Copley’s best work has often been with Blomkamp and in Chappie he provides his first motion capture performance. Copley is excellent as Chappie, starting as a timid, childlike being who easily scared despite being indestructible and slowly learns and advances. He has four parental figures, Deon wanting to expand Chappie’s mind and experiences and his is moral compass, Yolandi loving Chappie like a child, America is an uncle like character and Ninja is an abusive father whom Chappie is scared of and being used for Ninja’s own needs.
Patel and Jackman are solid in their roles and it is refreshing for a change for Jackman to use natural Australian accent for a change, playing a religious hard-nut who plays with a rugby ball. But the two disappear during as the multiple storylines are fighting each other for attention, the internal politics in the company, Chappie’s education and his relationship with his ‘parents’, the conflict between Deon and Ninja with Deon trying to win back his creation and the planning for the heist.
Weaver was wasted as the CEO and her role could have been played by anyone. Ninja and Visser were decent in the lead roles for people are not professional actors and because they are a popular hip-hop act in South Africa they provide songs for the soundtrack. Auret’s dialogue was subtitled despite the fact he was speaking in English; similar to how people with films and TV programmes that have people speaking with strong Glaswegian accents needing to be subtitled in America.
Blomkamp is known for placing political themes into his movies, with Elysium he sledgehammers the politics into us. Chappie does touch on political themes about policing in South Africa and issues of poverty and urban decay, but politics is not as central for this movie. Chappie‘s focus is more philosophical as it looks at the impact of A.I. creation, the moral and ethical debates that would arise with Vincent seeing Chappie as an abomination to God and looks at the cognitive development of Chappie and his understanding of the afterlife and the soul.
Chappie was a Sony production and like many Sony movies their products feature in the movie like Viao laptops. This is expected and not really an issue. But the Sony PS4 is introduced in the movie and not only product placement but actually serves to be a plot device which is fantastically laughable.
Chappie has received a kicking by many critics and it holds a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time this review was written. It is the weakest of Blomkamp’s three movies so far and he is stuck in a formula. Chappie is at times an unfocused mess, but it is an entertaining sci-fi movie, which has excellent special effects and action sequences and is attempting to have substance compared to other big budget sci-fi movies.