Posted: March 18, 2015 in Film reviews

Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver.

In near future Johannesburg crime rates have fallen after the introduction of police robots, known as Scouts. The Scouts are produced by weapons company Tetravaal and were designed by Deon Wilson (Patel). Deon is working on another project however, the creation of a true artificial intelligence, he just needs the beat-up body of Scout 22 in order to upload the new AI software and asks the CEO of Tetravaal, Michelle Bradley (Weaver) for permission. Bradley isn’t impressed by the notion of a robot that can compose poetry and refuses.

Unbowed Deon decides to go ahead anyway, and takes the remains of Scout 22 home with him. As he leaves the factory however, he’s kidnapped by gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (handily played by South African rappers, er Ninja and Yolandi…) who demand an off switch for the robots so they can do a heist to get the money to pay off a rival gangster. Deon explains that the Scouts don’t have an off switch, but, fearing for his life he instead uploads his AI into Scout 22 for them. The result is a thinking robot named Chappie, albeit one analogous with a small child who needs to learn, and learn he does from a confused mixture of Deon’s morals, and Ninja and Yolandi’s gangster ways.

Meanwhile one of Deon’s co-workers Vincent (Jackman) has learned of Deon’s experiments and uses this information to his advantage in discrediting the Scouts in favour of his own design, the human controlled Moose.

Will Chappie learn to exceed his programing, or will the Moose squash him flat?

Blomkamp first came to the world’s attention in 2009 with the visceral and (somewhat—Alien Nation and all that) original sci-fi thriller District 9. It was a great little film, especially from a first time director working with a low budget. Sadly his follow up, Elysium, was far less enjoyable (you can read my review of it here) so there was a certain amount of curiosity over his third film, would it be any good?

Well it’s no District 9, but given that film came out of left field that’s no surprise, but at the very least it’s better than Elysium by some distance.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s flawed. For starters it barely has an original bone in its body, channelling Short Circuit, Robocop, Blade Runner, District 9, Dredd and a whole heap of other stuff. And it can’t ever settle on a tone. At times it’s almost too cutesy, whilst at others it’s too vicious. A film can be both, but it needs to ride the line consistently, too often Chappie veers too far one way or the other. Its morality is questionable at times as well. Ninja might learn to love Chappie, but you never quite forget that he was moments away from killing Deon earlier in the film, and as role models go he and Yolandi aren’t great surrogate parents…but then that’s half the fun.

And there is fun to be had here, because the film just about manages to be better than the sum of its parts, down in no small part to Sharlto Copley’s motion capture/vocal performance as the titular robot, convincingly playing Chappie like a toddler—albeit a bullet proof toddler who could wrench peoples’ arms off if he wanted to and who walks and talks like a gangster—inquisitive, innocent, nervous, and prone to tantrums. I have a suspicion that whether you like the film or not may come down to whether you can engage with Chappie, if he’s cute and empathetic you’ll enjoy the film, but if you find him annoying (and some reviewers have compared him to a metal Jar Jar) then likely you won’t.

Hugh Jackman is good value as the villainous Vincent, even if you feel more should have been made of his religious convictions and his view of AI as the Devil’s work. Still he’s dangerous, yet also slightly comedic with his Aussie slang and Steve Irwin inspired outfits. Patel plays the nice guy role well, though he never quite convinces as an uber genius. Weaver is always good, but her role is so underwritten that it’s hard to see what she brings to the film aside from another big name to put on the poster. Ninja and Yolandi are oddly engaging, and their lack of acting chops and urban roots do give the characters a sense of being real, although whenever they’re on screen with Dev Patel or Jose Pablo Cantillo as their pal Amerika you’re never in any doubt as to who the real actors are.

At times the film is downright hilarious, and Chappie’s attempts at carjacking is something that will make me smile for a long time, but again because of the shift in tone the film often goes from madcap humour to somewhere a lot darker, and given Chappie is effectively a child, some of the things that happen to him pretty much count as child abuse and are a little hard to watch.

The effects are great, and I was easily convinced by Chappie and the other scouts, even if the Moose seemed a bit ropey at times. The Johannesburg setting provides something a little different but in terms of world building this pretty much is set today, only with robots, and the script does feel under developed in several places. Deon pretty much comes up with the world’s first AI after a few late nights working on his home computer, and Tetravaal seems less like a global weapons corporation, than a small scale factory that looks like it should be making engine parts. Similarly for a film that has the potential to deal with weighty issues, any thought given to the morality of handing policing over to robots, or the nature of consciousness are barely considered, in fact by the end consciousness is just a plot point to be batted around as easily as an email. This is no Ex Machina, but then perhaps it never set out to be, it just feels like a missed opportunity.

But like I say, I still enjoyed it. Blomkamp’s direction is good, the film is rarely dull, it’s very funny and at times quite emotional, and if you don’t set your expectations too high, and assuming you find Chappie loveable rather than annoying, there is a lot to like about Chappie and his messed up human family!

  1. Hmm, sounds interesting. And, frankly, it’s nice to see some attention-grabbing SF coming out of Africa – there must be plenty out there, but we rarely get to hear about it.

  2. starkers70 says:

    I’d never heard of that…but then I’d never heard of the Africa channel either ☺

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