Opening with a news montage reminiscent of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, the word ‘Chappie’ (Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus in District 9) is mentioned multiple times. Without understanding who or what he is, the film travels back to 18 months earlier.
Engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is working on an artificial intelligence program to enable his scouts (robot police droids) to have emotions and to think for themselves. When Deon uses his creation on battered Scout_22, Chappie is born.
Also like District 9, this is story about humans and class structures, but replaces aliens with robots. In true Blomkamp style, this surprisingly dark film depicts the tension between machinery and humans, and even the tensions that exist within humanity itself. But Chappie is different, and Blomkamp proves he can still have fun along the way.
At the start, without much knowledge of Chappie or who the film’s good and bad guys are, the film is quite chaotic and jarring.
The inclusion of electronic hip-hop artists Yolandi Visser and Ninja, appearing as themselves, simply enhances the film’s bizarre elements. If you don’t know these artists, it’s hard to describe their look of vulgarity and cuteness. The duo wear their own merchandise and samples of their songs are mixed into the narrative. This is strange at first, but it does give Chappie a self-referential, tongue-in-cheek kind of attitude. Yolandi and Ninja are essentially gangsters who live in an abandon warehouse outside of Johannesburg, and are technically the bad guys, but since they are a major part of Chappie’s life in a parental sense, this perspective shifts and forces them to change as people.
The other world in the film belongs to the defense technology company Tetra Vaal, where Chappie was born. Deon may be a progressive developer, but he always seems to be absent when Chappie’s in danger. And then there’s Vincent (Hugh Jackman), an outdoorsy, spiteful man with a ridged view of technology. Jackman is quite amusing and plays the part convincingly; it is also nice to see him playing an antagonist. Equally, CEO Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t seem to care or know how crime is being eliminated, as long as it’s done cheaply and looks good to the public.
All these characters develop fluidly, showcasing emotions that represent their ideologies. Naturally, there are personalities and themes here that tackle questions of science versus religion. This often lacks subtlety, but it does suit this everyman-for-themselves outlook. If anything, Weaver wasn’t in it enough to portray her true motivations, but nonetheless, her power suit embodies this type of corporate mogul and Weaver’s presence somewhat helps.
However, since this is a story about Chappie, is it important to reflect on the robot himself. He is beautifully realised through Sharlto Copley’s wonderful motion-captured mannerisms and vocal strength. Chappie is a traditional robot, with stiff and awkward gestures, but his jaunty, expressive movements, and not to mention those ears, make him somewhat resemble a pet dog. Copley’s voice is believable and funny, bringing Chappie to life as an inquisitive baby and a parody of the gangsta environment he has grown up in, made ultimately distinct by the South African dialect and cultural leanings. These mish-mashes, which form his life through attitudes he has learnt and morals he has formed, are nuanced and make Chappie more admirable than the film’s humans, to say the least.
While Chappie is ultimately very enjoyable, it’s the sort of film that takes a while to get you on board. Blomkamp has created something colorful with its titular creation, which can often sit in contrast to the sometimes-bleak tones and themes of a social and political film.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10