Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Die Antwoord, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
Seen on: March 22, 2015
This film isn’t so much about the performances of the actors as it is about the director who made it. Neill Blomkamp wowed the world with District 9 and disappointed with Elysium, so the pressure was on to prove he is a genius filmmaker and not a one-hit-wonder. I’m not sure he succeeded. Chappie falls somewhere between District 9 and Elysium.
But if you ignore the comparisons for a moment and just look at this film as it is, it’s not actually a bad film. In fact, it is actually entertaining and even a little moving. This is mostly due to Chappie himself and, surprisingly enough, Yolandi of South African music duo Die Antwoord. She’s not an actress and it shows, but her scenes with Chappie-still in a childlike state of mind-bring the connection to the robot you need to really get into this film. And Chappie really is the best thing in it (aside from Hugh Jackman’s mullet, but more on that later).
Chappie is a robot, discarded from the robot police force of Johannesburg, South Africa, after being damaged too much. The robots are the brain child of Deon, a genius scientist who is trying to create a self-thinking AI. His robots are not that, they are simply programmed to follow orders rather than think and-more importantly-feel for themselves, but when he finally has his break through and finishes his AI program he steals the discarded robot’s body and installs his AI on it. Or he wants to, because the robots gets stolen before he can start the install.
The thieves are Yolandi and Ninja, or Die Antwoord fame. I won’t go into too much detail about who they are and what their story is, because it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The acting is awkward and the plot holes so large you could fit Europe in it, so instead I’ll focus on their influence on the robot. After stealing the robot, they soon realize it can’t help them in their criminal ways since it doesn’t, you know, do anything. Until they get Deon in and bargain with him to install the AI program. Once in a lifetime opportunity for Deon, but definitely not his smartest move. Yolandi and Ninja quickly get-temporarily-rid of Deon and “raise” Chappie as their own. That includes big chains, graffiti tattoos and gang language.
What we then get is a touching story about human behaviour; What is born and what is taught? How does environment influence a child’s development? Chappie essentially grows up in an abusive home (Ninja leaves him to find his own way home across the violent city when he is at a toddler’s age), but he has a few influential people around him that try and counter that; Yolandi, in her own way finds motherly feelings, Deon strikes a deal with Ninja and gets visitation rights which he uses to teach Chappie ‘normal’ behaviour, even Ninja’s friend Amerika teaches Chappie about loyalty and friendship. Chappie’s development into a teenager and his relationships with his father and mother is a wonderfully tender thing and even at times pulls on your heart strings.
Until it absolutely and resolutely smashes that moment with another round of mindless violence that doesn’t serve the story in any way. It’s a whisplash of a film that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Luckily it also has Hugh Jackman’s mullet for some against-type casting that the actor seems to relish in. His Vincent is a dick; a military man with a grudge and a massive robot. All he needs is support from Tetravaal’s CEO Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) to get it into the streets, but she won’t give him the budget to install the police program and release it. Cue the bigger grudge.
The big show-down and ultimate climax of the film has to do with Hugh Jackman’s huge robot, Chappie’s humanity and Deon ending up in one of his own creations. It’s not important, really. It’s too far-fetched, too riddled with impossibilities and again doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s an ending, is what it is, which is enough.
This film has one massive saving grace though: the absolutely breathtaking, seemless incorporation of Chappie into the rest of the environment. Completely motion-captured by Sharlto Copely, you’d think it was an actual robot and not something CGI-ed in. That alone is worth seeing this on a big screen. We’ve come a long way from the first Terminator film.