I like Neill Blomkamp. I consider his debut feature, District 9, to be one of the best sci-fi films released in the last decade and whilst it wasn’t quite as good, I even enjoyed his second effort, Elysium. Having received a critical backlash for his second film (even he’s come out and said he wasn’t happy with it), Blomkamp seemingly has a lot riding on the success of his latest feature, Chappie, perhaps more so since his appointment as the director of a new Alien film. I’d heard a lot of negativity surrounding Chappie prior to seeing it, so it was with a mixture of trepidation and defensive biased, that I entered my screening. Whether it’s due to the latter, or the fact that a lot of people are wrong, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself not only liking Chappie, but pretty much loving it.
The story itself is a familiar one, best described as Robocop meets Short Circuit. Instead of being set in a dystopian Detroit, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg, and rather than Johnny 5, the robotic lead character of the film is Scout 22. Set in the near future, criminals are kept in check by an almost all robotic police force, known as Scouts. Created by Deon Wilson, a brilliant scientist who is working toward creating the first completely conscious A.I; he develops a programme to give one of his droids the ability to think and feel. The test subject is Scout 22, a severely damaged reject who is about to be destroyed, but is brought to life by Deon’s software. However, when 22 is kidnapped by a group of violent gangsters, the childlike robot, quickly named Chappie, must come to terms with morality and mortality, as he’s torn between the criminal lifestyle of his ‘parents’ and the artistic aspirations of his creator.
Despite lifting a lot of ideas, and even imagery from previous science fiction films (the Moose robot in Chappie, looks like an evolved version of Robocop’s ED-209), there’s still a lot to love when it comes to Chappie. As an admitted fan of Blomkamp, it’s nice to see him almost come full circle with his most ambitious film to date. He knows sci-fi, and he knows how to do subtext; whether that’s through using Alien invasion as a comment on Apartheid, or a dystopian space adventure as a comment on social class. It seems only natural then, that his third film should deal with another huge staple in the genre; artificial intelligence, and all the hopes and fears that come along with it.
How far can we push the boundaries of our technical capabilities before it takes over us? What would happen if a machine could think for itself, or even feel? These are questions that writers like Phillip K. Dick have been asking for years, and are once again explored in Chappie. Blomkamp not only uses the story as a way of talking about oppression and state control, but also as a way of exploring existential questions such as what is consciousness and what makes us human. As the plot develops, it leads to a truly interesting conclusion that will leave you wanting more, as big ideas about immortality come into play.
One of the films biggest achievements, is the creation of Chappie itself. Through the writing, the special effects and motion captured performance of regular Blomkamp collaborator, Sharlto Copley, Chappie becomes a character that you care about. Less irritating than Johnny 5, Chappie is the type of cinematic character that you wish existed and that if he did, you could just look after it. There’s a huge amount of humour that stems from his innocence and whilst many have complained he’s a children’s character in an adults film, I quite liked the juxtaposition of the two.
There is one big, undeniable flaw with the film though and that’s the casting of South African rap outfit, Die Antwoord. Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser play Chappie’s surrogate parents, and despite both having previous acting experience, are just awful in their roles. I’ve still yet to decide whether it’s the actors themselves, or their character’s that I disliked most, but one thing is for certain; the use of their irritating music does the film no favours. With everything going on in the film, it’s their inclusion that seems to have annoyed people most and I have to say that I’m in agreement in that respect. It’s a gripe that I can get over though, especially taking into account the excellent performances from Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Hugh Jackman’s mullet and Hugh Jackman’s shorts, who all make up for the otherwise dreadful cast.
Chappie isn’t Neill Blomkamp’s greatest, but it is a return to form after the ‘just-ok’ Elysium. Narratively and stylistically it has more in common with District 9, with even a slight return to the documentary-type talking heads that were used so well in the film. There’s a singular vision; an authership that runs throughout all of Blomkamp’s films, including Chappie, that in itself makes me admire the film. Fandom aside though and truthfully, Chappie is an excellent piece of sci-fi that whilst far from original, is at the very least, an admirable addition to the genre. It has laughs, action, style and big ideas at the centre of its robotic heart, as well as an awesome 80’s synth soundtrack from Hans Zimmer. If you like Blomkamp’s previous films, or sci-fi in general, this is a must-see.
Image credit to http://www.collider.com