If the formative years as a human are tough, spare a thought for Chappie, the bunny-eared title robot in director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp’s latest film. Raised in a wasteland by a pair of surrogate gangster parents, his impossibly difficult, traumatic childhood is compressed into a single week.
Created by computer genius Deon (Dev Patel), Chappie begins life as one of an army of servile police droids patrolling the mean streets of Johannesburg. Severely damaged after a gun battle, Chappie’s written off as scrap by the military tech company that owns him, Tetra Vaal. But Deon, privately working on a cutting-edge AI program in his spare time, injects his experimental routine (“consciousness.dat”) into Chappie’s brain – and thus, the first sentient robot is born.
Unfortunately for Chappie, fate has left him in the company of outlaw couple Yolandi and Ninja, who are like a hip-hop Bonnie and Clyde with tattoos and tight trousers. In hock to a local kingpin to the tune of $20m, they plan to use Chappie’s armoured chassis to help them pull off a heist which, they hope, will dig them out of debt.
The only trouble is that the freshly-rebooted Chappie is more wide-eyed infant than steely killing machine, and the young robot finds himself emotionally pulled in two directions. His creator Deon wants him to paint and write poetry, and Yolandi coddles him as though he were her own son. But the manic and possibly psychotic Ninja, meanwhile, wants Chappie to become a battle-ready gangster, with all the posturing, street talk and gun-fondling that comes with it.
With a city of rival gangs just outside the front door, a violent father and an AI-hating designer at Tetra Vaal called Vincent (Hugh Jackman) on his trail, it’s little surprise that Chappie’s days of innocence are all too brief. Born into a brutal and unforgiving world, Chappie has no choice but to embrace the hand he’s been dealt – so a life of crime beckons.
The film’s opening orients us in what at first feels like a familiar sci-fi world. We’ve seen the grimy, crumbling streets of a near-future Joburg in Blomkamp’s debut District 9, while the tricked-out cars, weapons and patrolling robots recall his 2012 movie Elysium. The echoes of 80s films Short Circuit and RoboCop also resonate just as loudly in Chappie’s opening moments as they did in the film’s promo trailers. But Blomkamp’s liberal borrowing from those films only serves as a jumping-off point for something more unique: it’s part sci-fi action film, part crime thriller, part existential drama.
Beneath all the weapons, explosions and grime, both District 9 and Elysium provided a snapshot of human nature at its best and very worst. They had their central characters shifting, often grotesquely, from one physical state to another, a process which devastated their bodies but redeemed their souls. Blomkamp brilliantly echoes this process in more ways than one here; it’s the machine that is kind and compassionate, and it’s fascinating to watch as a little bit of Chappie’s humanity rubs off on the tough, armoured and generally nasty people around him, even as he is increasingly scarred and disillusioned by what he sees in the world around him.
Chappie, played by a seamlessly motion-captured Sharlto Copley, cuts an immediately sympathetic figure: he’s vulnerable and wide-eyed, even if he doesn’t have any eyes as such. The special effects are so good, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that there’s a physical performance working behind it all – Copley economically conveys Chappie’s path from infant curiosity to fear and anger, and, perhaps most movingly, his gradual realisation that he’s a mortal being like his human creator.
Having a pair of non-actors from rap group Die Antwoord as Chappie’s co-stars sounds like an odd choice (Ninja and Yolandi play themselves), and it’s fair to say that their performances have more enthusiasm and attitude than nuance. But their casting makes sense when viewed against the film’s backdrop; having buff, Hollywood A-listers with white teeth emoting against the graffiti, burned out cars and dead dogs of future Joburg simply wouldn’t have had the same impact. The fresh-faced Dev Patel, by contrast, is perfect as milquetoast programmer Deon, who’s more used to life in an office than the garbage-strewn wasteland where Ninja and Yolandi dwell; Patel invests what might otherwise have been a stock character with an earnest charm.
There are all kinds of things in Chappie that, when examined in isolation, are quite daft. Sigourney Weaver’s barely-seen corporate boss Michelle presides over Tetra Vaal like a mother hen, where it seems curiously easy to steal things from what should be a high-tech, high-security fortress. Jackman’s Vincent is also one of the most curious mash-ups of clashing traits and vocations in recent memory. How did this Australian former soldier, who goes to church on Sundays, hates the mere notion of artificial intelligence but loves his massive robot (which looks like ED-209 redesigned by Homer Simpson), end up as a designer at Tetra Vaal?
But like the films that inspired it – not least Paul Verhoeven’s gonzo RoboCop – Chappie somehow gets away with its more implausible elements through the strength of its characters and the conviction in Blomkamp’s sometimes exquisite design and direction. There are fewer action sequences in Chappie than in the director’s previous films, but he can still stage a gun battle or an aerial robot assault better than just about anyone. Cut to Hans Zimmer’s pounding electronic soundtrack (possibly his best in recent years), Chappie’s set-pieces are thrilling.
Ultimately, though, Chappie works because of the pathos in its central character. He’s fascinating to watch because, even though he’s a walking pile of circuits, his experiences reflect our experiences. Within just a few short days, he learns all the harsh realities of life that we took in over a period of years.
Less flat-out original than District 9, yet more brash and assured in terms of direction than Elysium, Chappie marks – at least for this writer – another satisfying sci-fi from Neill Blomkamp, both viscerally and intellectually. Despite the ragged edges of its story, Chappie nevertheless has real heart beating under its shabby exterior. If you liked the director’s previous films, you owe it to yourself to see this one too.
Chappie is out in cinemas now.
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