Review: Chappie

chappie

The latest offering from South African filmmaker, Neill Blomkamp, is a much tamer, smaller film than Elysium – which Blomkamp himself admitted he’d dropped the ball on – it is much more like his first, breakout hit District 9. But, with a 15 certificate rather than an 18.

Like the two films before it, Chappie is set in a not-too-distant, dystopian future where crime in the city of Johannesburg has necessitated the police to include a battalion of robot ‘droids’ to help the police stay on top of the criminal underworld who are armed to the teeth and not afraid to use deadly force to defend themselves.

The robots are produced by an arms company called Tetravaal, headed up by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Thanks to the invention of these droids by Dev Patel’s character, Deon, crime rates in Johannesburg are at an all-time low and orders are increasing. However, Deon is more ambitious than this and wishes to create artificial intelligence that can think for itself, effectively creating a machine that would be stronger and more intelligent than a human. This, understandably, doesn’t sit well with Michelle who vetoes the idea as she runs an arms company, “not a company that produces robots that can write poetry and music”.

However, her company doesn’t notice employees breaking out with parts or stealing top-secret computer chips for several days and then, when it does, simply asks them to bring them back! There seems to be no-one watching any security cameras, no security doors that require more than one person to open and no staff at exit points. Most. Inept. Arms manufacturer. Ever.

Deon isn’t going to take this lying down and steals parts of a damaged robot and the override chip so he can download his software into the droid. He is then kidnapped by gangsters who commandeer the robot for their own ends; stealing a fortune to pay back an even worse criminal to whom they owe money.

What entails is a coming of age story about nature versus nurture, what it is to be alive, the human condition, all the standard sci-fi tropes. Chappie is a mash-up of Frankenstein, Robocop and Short Circuit, which sounds like a bit of a mess, and it is. There are gaping plot holes and inconsistencies in it and it doesn’t seem to really know whether it’s playing to a young audience or a more mature one.

This is one of the film’s biggest flaws. It has very broad comedic moments and a very sweet central character which would appeal to a younger audience. But the script is punctuated by quite a bit of bad language, which automatically elevates its rating to a 15. It isn’t even like there’s a whole lot of gore like in Blomkamp’s earlier films – apart from one part where someone is ripped in half, but this largely happens off-screen – so, it is the language alone (and firearms use and drug references) that forces the film to play to an older audience. It’s as though Blomkamp wasn’t sure which demographic to aim at and has missed slightly on both counts.

This said, Chappie is a fun ride while it is happening (though the screening I saw froze and had to be rebooted twice) and has some brilliant action scenes and panoramic shots of Johannesburg which really anchor the action in the reality being portrayed. It’s just a shame that the script is a little simplistic and the acting a bit formulaic.

Sigourney Weaver phones it in as Michelle Bentley, Dev Patel is good, but not great, as the wunderkind scientist, Hugh Jackman seems to be having a lot of fun hamming it up as Dev Patel’s rival at Tetravaal and the gangsters played by Yolandi and Ninja, from the rap group Die Antwoord, aren’t terrible but could clearly have benefitted from some more acting lessons (and a better tattooist – those are real!). The real stand out is, once again, Sharlto Copley, who voices the titular robot. He does a very good job of mimicking the other actors while being naive and childlike, his performance through motion-capture and his voice give Chappie a personality that makes you really feel for and care about what’s is happening to him. The only actor not on the screen is the one that gives the most rounded performance.

In the end, Chappie sits somewhere between the brilliance of District 9 and the failure of Elysium, which is not a bad place to be at all. Fun, disposable sci-fi action with an interesting ending that might make you think.

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