SYNOPSIS: In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. But now, the people are fighting back. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself. As powerful, destructive forces start to see Chappie as a danger to mankind and order, they will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo and ensure that Chappie is the last of his kind.
Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s new film, doesn’t have the power of his excellent District 9, but it comes off better than his follow-up film Elysium.
Artificial intelligence has been a subject of interest lately; none other than the famous British scientist Stephen Hawking has said that A.I. will be the destructor of humankind. Chappie doesn’t take so apocalyptic a view, but it does point out the weaknesses in it. The film takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a near future when the crime-ridden nation has resorted to an android police force that, shall we say, lacks a soft touch when it comes to law enforcement.
Dev Patel does a fine job portraying Deon Wilson, a computer scientist who has developed the successful Scout fleet of robotic “cops” for his company, the huge conglomerate Tetravaal. He enjoys the approval of the managing director, Michelle Bradley, played by Sigourney Weaver using a peculiar high-pitched, condescending voice. Her tone comes off as girlish – certainly a departure for Weaver, and not her best moment on screen. He also endures the hostility of ex-military engineer Vincent Moore, played with hawkish menace by Hugh Jackman. Playing against type, Jackman shows us a man eaten up with envy for Deon’s success at what he believes to be the expense of his own Moose program. He has basically engineered a war machine which, even though he is repeatedly told “no” by Bradeley, he intends to advance by any means necessary.
Even though he has the esteem of his company, Deon longs to create a robot that can feel human emotions and think independently. He spends his evenings, fueled by Red Bull, working on code to bring his dream into reality. When he finally finds it, he lacks a “body” for his program, so he pirates a unit from the Scout program that has been damaged and is destined for destruction. No sooner has he installed his program, than he is hijacked by a trio of criminals who want to match the force of the police to get away with their car theft/drug dealing endeavors. Two members of the controversial rap/rave group Die Antwoord, Ninja and Yo-landi Visser, use their own names for their characters, and Jose Pablo Cantillo rounds out the group as Amerika.
Ninja and his co-hearts are not the brightest folks around, so Deon explains to them that the android is like a child that has to learn everything. Ninja reluctantly agrees to allow Deon some access to his creation, which Yolandi has named Chappie, but as soon as Deon leaves, Ninja begins teaching Chappie to be a gangster. Countering the bad influence, Yolandi becomes “mommy” to Chappie, providing nurturing and more positive input. Chappie knows Deon as his “maker,” and to the frustration of Ninja, Deon has instilled morality in Chappie.
As the story progresses, there are opportunities for Deon to try to regain control of Chappie, and for Vincent to run amok with Moose. Like a human child, Chappie is easily manipulated, but he also experiences the pain of betrayal when Ninja (daddy) lies to him. The narrative contains several surprises, as well as a few inconsistencies, and I really didn’t see the resolution coming.
Ninja and Yo-landi do surprisingly well for non-actors. Chappie is played in motion-capture by Sharlto Copley who does a skillful job presenting the robot’s developing emotions. Visually, this film is a little less cinema verite than District 9, with fewer hand-held camera shots. It looks more like a conventional film. It’s not particularly futuristic looking, but there are some striking settings, such as the abandoned and decaying factory where Ninja and his gang live. The “gangsters” wardrobe, hair styles, and weaponry are a bit reminiscent of Mad Max.
Chappie is not a kid-friendly film, so parents should pay attention to the R rating. There are many brutally violent scenes although the blood seemed blatantly fake. That’s actually OK with me, but special effects purists may have a problem with it. The characters’ language is liberally laced with F-bombs and combinations thereof. As usual with Blomkamp’s films, social commentary runs throughout. As you might imagine, the value or lack thereof of artificial intelligence is a major theme, but the increasing militarization of civilian police forces, social inequality, and the nature of human consciousness play equally important roles.
I enjoyed the film thoroughly as I believe any fan of Neill Blomkamp will. - JoAnne Hyde