Beneath the 80s nostalgia of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie

The Chappie trailer gave us a first look at the new film from the director of District 9 and Elysium. But what's beneath its 80s nostalgia.

From his earliest, eye-catching short films, South African director Neill Blomkamp showed off a style that already seemed fully-formed. As much inspired by manga and video games as the more typical touchstones of science fiction cinema, Blomkamp’s films are set in a recognisably grubby future, where the high-tech meets the tatty malaise of cities worn down through decades of use.

Those sensational short films, among them Alive in Joburg, Yellow, and Tetra Vaal, led to a stalled Halo feature film project. This in turn led to his first feature, the surprise hit District 9 – based on Alive in Joburg – and then Elysium, the 2013 action film starring Matt Damon.  

In Chappie, due out next spring, Blomkamp again draws on one of his early shorts for inspiration – 2004’s Tetra Vaal, which featured a mechanical warrior with distinctive rabbit-ear antennae patrolling the streets of Johannesburg, and was an early example of the director’s ability to fuse digital effects with live action.

That rabbit-eared robot is back in almost identical form in Chappie, which, as we saw from its recent trailer, is very deliberately packed with references to 1980s film and pop culture. From what we can gather, Dev Patel plays a computer genius who recovers a damaged robot – one of several used to police Johannesburg in the near future – and somehow gives it artificial consciousness. The robot’s then taken under the wing of a pair of career criminals, played by Ninja and Yolandi Visser from the South African rap group, Die Antwoord. But trouble looms in the shape of Hugh Jackman, who appears to play the representative of a government determined to stamp out artificial intelligence wherever it shows up. 

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The resemblance between Chappie and the 1986 film Short Circuit is plain to see, and it’s hard to believe that Blomkamp’s references to that film aren’t deliberate. Both films are about machines intended to fight and potentially kill, which then become sentient and childlike (Short Circuits Johnny Five was brought to life by a magical lightning bolt). Both films see the central robot explore the world around them with wonderment, before the villains swoop in to try to capture or destroy them.

Of course, both Short Circuit and Chappie (not to mention Spielberg’s A.I., another possible influence on Blomkamp) are both drawing on much older tales – the Italian story Pinocchio or, reaching further back, the Jewish legend of the Golem. But Chappie seems to be consciously following Short Circuit as a template, with Yolandi Visser taking on the role Ally Sheedy played, Ninja replacing Steve Guttenberg, and Dev Patel standing in for Fisher Stevens (who, toe-curlingly, was an American actor made-up to look Asian) as the science genius.

Then there are the other 80s references, which are too blatant to ignore: the Casio calculator watch, Adam, prince of Eternia raising aloft his magic sword in an episode of He-Man playing on a television. 

Then there’s Chappie himself, whose design is modelled after a character named Briareos Hecatonchires from Masamune Shirow’s 80s futuristic manga, Appleseed

Blomkamp was quite open about the influence of Shirow on his work when we spoke to him last year, and when talking about his next film, he told us, “Chappie, the film I’m about to do, is basically based on Tetra Vaal. So you’ll see some more Briareos ears.”

So what’s Blomkamp up to here? His films aren’t exactly known for their nostalgia or coziness, even if they have openly referenced the staples of past sci-fi classics. My guess is that the 80s references are there to disarm us, to beguile us before we’re assaulted by something much more harsh and uncompromising.

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Earlier this year, Sharlto Copley – who’s voicing Chappie and providing his movements with “poor-man’s motion-capture” – appeared to back this theory up during an interview with Hitfix. He said that Chappie “takes very familiar elements, but puts them together in a way you’ve never seen before.” 

Around the same time, Copley also suggested that Chappie might be closer in style to District 9 than Elysium. “I think we’re finding our stride now on this third film,” he told Coming Soon, “sort of going back to a smaller style of filmmaking. I’m playing a light character[…] A child-like robot, which is great. He only gets to about nine years in his emotional development. I got to run around in one of the most dangerous cities in the world being a child.”

Producer Simon Kinberg went one step further and said in an interview with Collider that Chappie is the most “provocative studio movie you will likely ever see. It’s like Neill let loose.”

It seems likely, then, that the slightly quaint, 80s charm we see in Chappie‘s trailer is only a small part of the overall picture. Humanity and its treatment of people different from itself was dealt with mercilessly in District 9. That seems to be the theme once again in Chappie. And given that it’s about an innocent consciousness  trapped in a robot’s body, we’re bracing ourselves for a violent and potentially heartbreaking ride.

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