Chappie succeeds in Blomkamp's principle goal: exploring a heightened version of childhood development told through the lens of gritty science-fiction and gangster stereotypes.
Chappie follows the story of genius robotics engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who creates a fleet of police robots - controlled by advanced (but still limited) artificial intelligence programing. Aided by the unflinching scout bot force, law enforcement reduces crime in Johannesburg - all while minimizing human officer casualties. Still, despite efforts to wipe all illegal activity from the South African city, dangerous criminals (armed with military-grade munitions) refuse to go down without a lethal fight. When a human and robot police team raid the compound of notorious gang leader, Hippo (Brandon Auret), scout #22 is critically damaged in the conflict and marked for scrap.
However, after Deon develops a sentient artificial intelligence, #22 is given a second chance at life as the robotic body for Deon's new creation, Chappie - an A.I. capable of human learning and feeling. Regrettably, Deon's unauthorized project results in dangerous ramifications after Chappie (Sharlto Copley) is stolen by a group of violent thugs hoping to use the bot in a money heist. With the mind of a child but the potential to surpass human understanding, surrounded by adults with conflicting motivations, Chappie must decide for himself the man he wants to become.
Much like District 9, which developed from director Neill Blomkamp's 2005 short film Alive in Joburg, Chappie is based on the filmmaker's 2004 project Tetra Vaal - a brief 1.5 minute "advertisement" for robotic police in third-world countries. In spite of its brief runtime, the core setup for Chappie, along with a rough version of the titular robot's design, were both present in the original live-action/CGI video and, ten years later, the director has been able to evolve the concept into a genuinely unique sci-fi feature. While Chappie struggles to find the same seamless blend of sci-fi world building, slick CGI visuals, heartfelt character development, and insightful social reflection that made District 9 a commercial and critical hit, Blomkamp's latest is an improvement over his sophomore slump, Elysium.
Chappie suffers under some rough tonal shifts, divisive performances, and high-minded science fiction ideas (that are not entirely earned) but still provides a fresh and layered moviegoing experience that, regardless of its shortcomings, offers worthwhile insights into "humanity" and "life" as well as a captivating protagonist. Brought to life through motion-capture and voice work from Blomkamp's go-to actor, Sharlto Copley, there has never been a character quite like Chappie on the big screen.
Viewers will draw comparisons to RoboCop and Short Circuit's Johnny Five but Chappie's childlike innocence provides amusing (and sometimes poignant) expression of humanity's best and worst attributes - while ensuring the title character is likable and fun to watch throughout. To that end, there's a subtlety and sensitivity to Copley's performance that, combined with high-quality VFX work, creates an unforgettable (and quirky) CGI character. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for nearly every other character in the film. This isn't to claim there aren't quality supporting performances but most of the subsequent character arcs fall into thin caricature (e.g., the war veteran who never left the battlefield and the brilliant but obsessive scientist, among others).
Without a doubt, Chappie's secondary cast is designed to keep the spotlight focused on its titular robo-protagonist but Blomkamp also spends a significant amount of screen time seeking to payoff side threads - especially the not-so-subtle story of intellect versus brute force exemplified by Deon and his rival Tetravaal engineer, Vincent Moore (played Hugh Jackman). Both actors are solid in their roles but the movie simply does not have room to turn their fundamental disagreements about artificial intelligence into rewarding (or particularly fresh) science fiction ideas.
Nevertheless, the most controversial aspect of the film will be Blomkamp's choice to cast rap-rave musical duo Die Antwoord ("Ninja" Watkin Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser) as the two actors who spend the most time with Chappie. For better or worse, the pair's counterculture "zef" movement in the real world ("you're poor but you're fancy") permeates through the entire film production - giving Chappie a distinct and colorful style that injects interesting juxtaposition onto Blomkamp's otherwise gritty science fiction palette while, at the same time, creating some very harsh shifts in tone. For singers/rappers with little movie or TV experience, Ninja and Yolandi mostly succeed in their respective roles, as Chappie's nurturing Mommy and gangster Daddy, producing some surprisingly humorous and heartfelt moments - even if the musicians-turned-actors aren't the strongest members of the cast.
Yolandi, especially, is instrumental in selling Chappie's character arc - and, even when the acting is a bit stilted, the pair's relationship is easily the most moving aspect of the story. Regardless, for those who simply cannot handle Blomkamp's fundamental setup - an infantile but powerful A.I. raised by cartoonish criminals - and his choice to portray Johannesburg's criminal element as simpleminded thugs, Die Antwoord's influence (and performances) will be a major sticking point.
That said, Chappie succeeds in Blomkamp's principle goal: exploring a heightened version of childhood development told through the lens of gritty science-fiction and gangster stereotypes. The final film succeeds as a quality sci-fi experience, that is more exploration of concept than nuanced story, albeit one that is unlikely to gel with casual audiences that were hoping for a true successor to District 9 - a film that effortlessly mixed its thought-provoking science fiction and gritty world-building with palatable character drama.
As a result, Chappie is an inventive and noteworthy entry in Blomkamp's filmography. The filmmaker once again throws a handful of interesting science fiction ideas and thematic allegories at his established fanbase; yet, much like in Elysium, some ideas fail to blend into a cohesive whole. For that reason viewers should temper their expectations - appreciating what the filmmaker accomplishes (in terms of visual sophistication and creating a memorable CGI protagonist) with the foreknowledge that certain threads, storylines, and filmmaking choices will be underdeveloped (at best) and/or completely divisive (at worst).
Chappie runs 120 minutes and is Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity. Now playing in regular and IMAX theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Chappie episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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