Movie review — ‘Chappie:’ This robot works!Movie Review Thursday, March 12th, 2015
When Neill Blomkamp arrived with District 9 in 2009, he was heralded as the next great science fiction filmmaker. The film about apartheid policies against deceptively scary looking aliens in a slightly futuristic South Africa was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, most deservedly. Because of how good District 9 was, his not great, but certainly not awful follow-up Elysium was trashed by disappointed critics, who were even nastier last week with Chappie, his third film in his trilogy of speculative fables about oppression and technology. And I can’t fathom the hatred of the film, which I thoroughly enjoyed and found politically pointed.
Like District 9, Chappie takes place in a near-future South Africa ravaged by poverty and crime. There are no stranded aliens in Chappie, however, but rather incredibly effective robot police. These were built by a company called Tetravaal, run by Michelle Bradley, who is played by an under-utilized Sigourney Weaver, and designed by whiz kid Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, the star of Slumdog Millionaire. Not content with his success, he wants to take the robots further and give them artificial intelligence that includes free will, artistic judgement and complex emotions. Michelle tells him not to bother, so he works in secret, which involves borrowing a key chip that is never to leave the company’s headquarters. Deon’s rival engineer Vincent Moore’s larger, absurdly powerful designs are not going anywhere, and Vincent, played by a mulleted Hugh Jackman, is determined to take down Deon and his robots, no matter the cost.
Meanwhile, a trio of criminals, played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the South African bizarre art-pop band Die Antwood and Jose Pablo Cantillo, are in trouble with a psychotic gang leader. They need a lot of money and fast, and Yolandi figures the best way to score a major heist is to kidnap Deon and figure out how to turn off the robot cops. However, when they abduct Deon, he has just figured out how to create the artificial intelligence; while with the trio, he turns on Chappie, a modified version of his robot that can learn and develop like a child, only several thousand times faster. Deon is kicked out of the trio’s hideout, and Chappie is raised into a teenager – in two days. He talks in South African slang, tries to stay true to the moral compass Deon tried to instill in him, and fiercely loves Yolandi, who is a doting, if slightly bonkers, mother.
But then Vincent’s insane ambition gets in the way, and all hell breaks loose.
While there’s a hefty amount of action, particularly in the violent third act, the charm of the movie is in Chappie’s development as a person and his relationships with Yolandi, Ninja, and Deon. Voiced by Sharlto Copley, who is in all of Blomkamp’s films, Chappie is a delightful character, part ET, part Number Five, part South Park kid. Yolandi and Ninja, who seem to grate on some audience members and critics, are wildly weird as criminals, but they make the film much more interesting and original than any other recent robots-are-scary blockbusters in recent years, from I, Robot to the Terminator also-rans. Patel is convincing, though not nearly as interesting at Jackman’s Vincent, who is amusingly evil. It’s fun to see Hugh Jackman play against type.
I think Chappie works not only because of Blomkamp’s fine direction and witty writing, but also because he makes science fiction with clear social commentary. The militarization of the police, legal hyper violence as a means of social control, and a lack of human emotion in governance are all criticized. Whatever the film’s limitations, whether it’s too cute or too moralistic, Blomkamp’s politics are needed.
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman
At your local multiplex
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