DIRECTED BY: Neill Blomkamp
WRITTEN BY: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
PEW PEW: Action takes a back seat on this one, but it is not non-existent.
CAT FOOD: Heaps of existential deep thinking offered up against a degenerate backdrop.
The great thing about Neill Blomkamp’s most bizarre outing to date is that we are constantly forced to reassess the characters and situations in a manner consistent with, and even greater than, his past films. Based on his short film Tetra Vaal, I won’t call Chappie the director’s best film, but it certainly is an oddball triumph in storytelling.
In the near future, and in the face of a massive crime spike, Johannesburg has employed the company Tetravaal to create an efficient robotic police force. When their creator, Deon Wilson, discovers how to create consciousness in the machines, he is denied the right to test on one that has been scrapped. Fed up with Tetravaal’s single-minded, militaristic attitude, Deon steals the scrapped droid and uploads consciousness into it. Meanwhile, a small band of delinquents find out they owe a crime lord 20 million rand and kidnap Deon and the droid to assist them in a heist that will get them the 20 million by the time their seven day deadline runs out.
The catch, of course, is that the droid, now named Chappie, starts off as an intelligent baby and must be taught. While Deon struggles to teach Chappie right from wrong, he also works against the would-be gangsters, who want Chappie for their own ends, and against rival, Vincent Moore, whose MOOSE technology lost out to Deon’s police droids.
The first thing you’ll notice as Chappie starts is that we’ve returned to a style that more closely resembles District 9. The background is once again filled in mockumentary style by interviews and news reports — and we are back in South Africa! Once everything is explained, we are handed into the capable hands of a most peculiar narrative. I really have to give this one credit, as it had me guessing the whole way through.
My initial reaction was one of sincere doubt. I was pretty sure Neill had lost his marbles on this one. While the director’s trademark tension is still there and the characters are all facing immediate situations, the action has notably taken a backseat in this film. It is instead replaced by the dealings of three fucked up degenerate Mad Max rejects that I wasn’t too sure of. The appearance of zef duo Die Antwoord taxed my patience at first, but the situation changed quickly.
The beautiful thing about this film, as stated above, is that you’re never too sure about anything or anyone in this film. It knows exactly where it’s going, but it’s going to take us on a zig-zag before it gets there. For instance, Die Antwoord’s Ninja plays a great deadbeat dad who continually toys with Chappie’s trust. Perhaps it’s that his acting chops aren’t exactly A+ that makes his character so unpredictable. He practices a form of crazy deadpan that oddly works. And, actually, Yolandi Visser, Ninja’s other half, is my favourite thing about the whole film. Though she’s just as fucked as the others, her quick transformation into a warm and oddly stable mother figure is beyond impressive. The scene where she explains to Chappie what a soul is and why she loves him is a most beautiful scene.
Chappie himself is incredibly convincing. Through CGI he is given a very expressive form. An impressive amount of research was likely done by the animators to figure out just how to give a rigid police robot visible emotion. The ever capable Sharlto Copley gives Chappie a voice that conveys a plethora of emotions. When Chappie is a happy Chappie, you can hear it. When Chappie hurts, you can hear it, and it’s crushing. A childhood scarred by Johnny 5’s beatdown in Short Circuit 2 couldn’t even prepare me for what happens to Chappie when he meets the real world for the first time.
As the action is toned down quite a bit from the first two Blomkamp films (it is still in there though, I assure you), there is infinitely more space for the social commentary that the director is known for. In this most interesting brand of cat food, we get to discover consciousness as a new thing, and there are all kinds of moral questions posed. When Ninja teaches Chappie to stab people (telling him it means ‘putting them to sleepy weepies’ instead of killing them), it actually scares me. But Chappie, with the help of his loving mother and troubled creator, does evolve to a sort of young wisdom.
In another of my favourite scenes, Chappie absolutely wrecks a mulleted Hugh Jackman, but spares his life saying, “now I forgive you, bad man.”
There are also many spiritual brow-raisers. For example, when Chappie asks his creator why he made him just so that he could die. There is so much to think about with a concept like this and I would especially love to see a sequel explore the Ghost in the Shell-like transfers of consciousness that occur in the film.
The visual effects are also notably toned down, save for an Iron Man-style battle with a giant mech toward the end of the film, but I think that this choice was for the best. The vibrant sights of Die Antwoord and lair probably could have made any further visual effects appear cluttered. It’s good that Chappie is a smaller scale film, as it makes the subject’s growth all the more interesting.
At the end of the day I strongly recommend the film, just keep an open mind and embrace the tackiness of its rabble of characters. Chappie is a bold move by a talented director, but of all the things it was made to be, the film was almost certainly not made to appease any one fan base. Everyone, and I mean everyone, will have to adjust to its parameters to enjoy the story it has to tell.