If Chappie had come out a month or so ago, I’d have begun this review praising Neill Blomkamp for pursuing a career path that seems increasingly unusual in Hollywood today. After his breakthrough District 9 I’m sure he was fielding numerous offers to take on some franchise property or other, but instead he decided to do his own thing and make original self-written follow-ups for both his second (Elysium) and now third films. Of course, just before Chappie was released Blomkamp announced that his next project will be a new Alien film, but my point remains. I’m sure he didn’t have to take risks on his own ideas but chose to anyhow.
The general opinion on Blomkamp seems to be that District 9 was an incredible début and Elysium was a massively disappointing sophomore slump. Personally I felt District 9 was a little overpaised while Elysium was perhaps too harshly treated, if undeniably inferior. One criticism is that there were obvious similarities between the two, both thematically and visually, and that only continues here with Chappie. At the same time, I came out of Chappie just feeling so happy that in our world of increasingly homogenised blockbusters something as batshit insane as this movie got put out by a major studio. Chappie has all the hallmarks of a director just going for broke and shoving whatever crazy ideas he has into movie he’s inexplicably secured major financing for.
I’m sure it’s not so much of a hard sell to pitch a movie about a robot programmed with a new advanced AI gaining sentience but let’s look at where Chappie goes with this. Set in a near-future Johannesburg (which in itself gives Chappie an unusual feel), robotic policemen called scouts have been deployed to try and deal with the city’s crime levels. Their inventor Deon (Dev Patel) wants to pursue new fields of AI to try and create a robot that can think for itself. Turned down by his boss (an underused Sigourney Weaver) he illegally puts the program into a damaged police bot headed for the scrap heap. What follows could have been a charming human-robot bonding movie in the vein of Robot and Frank but not for Blomkamp. Almost immediately Deon is car jacked and the robot stolen by downtrodden local gangsters intended on using it to perform a heist. Unfortunately for them, it needs training first, and Deon’s not about to let his most prized work be taken away from him quite so easily. On top of this, one of Deon’s co-workers Vincent (Hugh Jackman) is also on his case after a rival manned police robot of his own design was rejected in favour of the scouts.
The aspect of Chappie that I was perhaps most concerned about was that the gangsters in question are played by South African rap group Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Visser). Who exactly they’re playing is never entirely clear. They dress like they do in their music videos and use their stage names, their songs are heard as both diegetic and non-diegetic music, but there’s no mention within the film of them being a famous group in South Africa. Indeed if they are supposed to be playing themselves we should perhaps be a little worried as they, are happy to portray themselves as unsympathetic violent criminals (Ninja in particular, Yolandi is a little less intimidating due to her maternal instincts towards Chappie) . Are they playing themselves, characters based on themselves or just fictional gangsters? It really doesn’t matter, that bizarre characters like these can turn up is just the kind of movie Chappie is. They’re perfectly acceptable at portraying whoever it is that they’re supposed to be here, and that’s a good thing too as they’re basically the leads, securing more screen time than an A-lister like Jackman.
I had a blast with this movie, but I can understand why many people will have trouble with it. It’s riddled with plot holes, and features a security firm whom characters are able to get into, out of and steal things from with ridiculous ease. At the centre there’s Chappie himself, voiced and mo-capped by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley. He’s potentially quite an irritating character, a strong robot with the mind of a baby who must learn quickly how the world works. Copley just about gets the balance right, Chappie does come across as a child, and then later a teenager, even if he is occasionally a bit annoying (he talks about himself in the third person, and again there seems to be little consistency as to how his ability to learn operates). The effects work is top-notch though, he’s totally believable in his interactions with humans, and this leads to a couple of quite striking sequences where I found myself caring about what might happen to this robot at the hands of Ninja’s ‘parenting’. If you just go with this movie and embrace its preposterousness, it ultimately rewards.
This notion reaches its peak come the movie’s third act, in which Blomkamp decides to start exploring themes of mortality (we know from the start that Chappie’s only got 5 days of battery life) and offhandedly introduces a majorly important new idea. He could have probably made a whole movie just about this but is content to just drop it in at the end. And why not? I suppose it makes sense in context. The film then builds to a fantastically orchestrated (and scored) action set-piece, in which the gangsters and Chappie, initially facing up to the city’s crime boss are confronted by Jackman’s robot; a military juggernaut clearly based on RoboCop’s ED-209. The action surpasses anything Blomkamp’s done before, and the scene plays out, like so much of this admirably crazy movie, in quite an unpredictable manner (again something all-too rare in a big movie nowadays) that had me invested more in the characters than I ever expected to. That is noteworthy too as this film doesn’t have any obvious heroes, even Deon, the only non-criminal is a selfish and irresponsible person. As his rival, an ex-military engineer whose fear of AI stems from his religious beliefs, Hugh Jackman wholeheartedly embraces a rare chance to play a ludicrous villain, sporting a mullet, shorts and his natural accent.
(*vague potential spoiler territory that I’ll try to talk around*)
Chappie’s final bid for glory comes in its closing moments, in which it managed to surprise me once more. If I described the ending it could sound like an easy cheat but Blomkamp managed to pull off something I can’t recall seeing in quite some time. He effectively foreshadowed a crucial event without making it seem like anything noteworthy, and then later provides the briefest of flashbacks that suddenly had me remembering that yes he did set this up, and ever-so subtly (not something you could say about the rest of this film). So much of Chappie shouldn’t work, it does often feel like Blomkamp is just shoving every idea he has into one movie and trying to get something coherent out of it, but what he’s given us will likely be the most unique big studio movie of 2015. I’m all for seeing what he does with Alien now.