Since we first spoke to Sharlto Copley and Neill Blomkamp years ago, it was clear that when it came to passion projects, Chappie was theirs. Now that it is here for audiences to discover, our Chappie review dives into the latest dystopian world from the man who has never done it better than he did with the Oscar-nominated District 9.
Chappie is not only directed by Blomkamp (who also recently gave us Elysium), but he co-wrote it with Terri Tatchell. As teased in the Chappie trailer, the story follows a not-so-distant Johannesburg, South Africa set world where crime has taken over. To respond, a company headed by Sigourney Weaver, has provided the law enforcement with “Scouts,” robots developed by Dev Patel that will take most of the hits for the police force as they clean up the streets of the African capitol city.
Sharlto voices (and does the motion capture work) for Chappie. He’s a Scout that has taken a few too many hits and is being readied for the trash heap. That is until Patel’s scientist discovers what he thinks is the key to making artificial intelligence work. He saves the robot, installs the software, and Chappie is born.
Meanwhile. Ninja and Yolandi (the South African rappers essentially play themselves) kidnap Patel as he is making a break away from his company after illegally stealing the robot that will become Chappie. They think if they get him to help control those police robots, they can pull off a heist that will not only have them living on easy street, but will get rid of a $20 million mark that is on their heads.
They get one better, their own robot in Chappie. But when Chappie is rebooted, he has the mind of a child. He must be taught right and wrong, and even how to do the simplest of tasks. It is in this realm that Blomkamp’s Chappie truly moves the heart. We expected many outright emotional moments and unfortunately, they are not as heart-piercing as one would expect. It is difficult to see this child-like being suffer as Chappie does, but he quickly learns and goes from infant to teenager to fully thinking adult in the span of the film.
We’d say it’s a side story, but it actually takes up more space than it should and that’s the storyline that involves Hugh Jackman’s character. He is a weapons designer who also works for Weaver’s company. He is convinced that his warrior-like weapon that he's built is much better suited for the tough streets than these robots, who have largely been successful at getting the crime rate down. Jackman is always fantastic, but it’s kind of hard to see how this storyline really is anything more than a distraction within the entity of the movie itself.
There is enough going on with the “raising” of Chappie by Patel and Yolandi. That part is quite touching. What he has to do for his daddy, Ninja, is also quite profound. Are the sins of the father passed on to his “child?” We don’t need this war machine trumpeter (Jackman) to further dilute this tale, unfortunately. Sure, it sets up the climatic showdown, but it -- by that point -- feels hollow and unnecessary. And Weaver is underused but frankly it does not matter because the character is grossly underdeveloped.
For us, the entire Chappie experience is saved by the charming and heartwarming relationship between Patel, Yolandi and Chappie.
The performance of Copley further elevates the mo-cap revolution that Andy Serkis started all those years ago. His Chappie truly has a strong character arc that effectively captures what it is like to be wiped clean of memories and knowledge, and have to grow up and grow up fast. In that vein, the film feels quite timely as our children have access to so much information -- it seems to put a mirror to our own world at this moment.
Blomkamp just has too many balls in the air on this one, overall. Yet, it is hard to argue against the pulsating and powerful heart of Chappie.
Check out what is still Blomkamp's best work and watch District 9 online.