Review: Neill Blomkamp's 'Chappie' is Adorable, Original Sci-Fi Fun
by Alex Billington
March 5, 2015
"I think, therefore I am Chappie." Third times the charm. South African sci-fi director Neill Blomkamp is back with his third feature, titled Chappie, following District 9 and Elysium over the past six years. While he is certainly adept at building one-of-a-kind science fiction worlds, and crazy characters to inhabit them, the stories in each of his three movies have been completely different and often times, unfortunately, the weakest link. Chappie, while on one hand a violent R-rated action film, sorta seems like RoboCop-for-kids designed for teens to go crazy over whenever they finally somehow see it. It's a lot more fun, totally wild at times, occasionally absurd, and much more charming than I was expecting. And I mean that in a good way.
Blomkamp is a master at envisioning original sci-fi concepts, and creating all of the elements that are a part of that world. The way he's able to come up with a social setting that is one-of-a-kind, integrate characters that feel like they belong in that world, and give us an engaging story (with some cool action beats) within that world, is his expertise. With Chappie, set again in Johannesburg, South Africa we get a world based around robots and AI not as much aliens this time. However, it's not like Elysium. In this story, which riffs on the recent RoboCop remake big time, instead of going right for big bad robots turning evil, he twists it and gives us successful robots who are manipulated. But, technically speaking, the robots are the good guys.
This is where the sweeter side of the story comes into play. Dev Patel plays Deon, the engineer/designer responsible for coming up with the police "Scout" robot designs. Within the confines of his corporate life, he decides to go rogue and on his own test his self-made artificial intelligence software on a defective robot. It works. It works beautifully. This is the best part of the film – a mesmerizing mash-up of themes exploring: how our surroundings and what we're exposed to "growing up" shapes who we become; and the concept of being sentient and whether robots have a soul, despite being entirely made out of machine. It borrows from other sci-fi works generously, but that's what the entire genre is about: borrowing big ideas and repackaging them into an interesting story. Blomkamp does just that, addressing a number of modern societal issues.
Chappie is a robot who enters this world with a clean slate. He must be "orientated" and introduced to any and everything in this world, just like a newborn baby. He learns about the world from his Mommy and Daddy, played by Yo-Landi and Ninja of the real South African rap group Die Antwoord, who steal him from Deon because they need to pull off a heist of their own. Chappie learns by watching cartoons, by being told how to act like a thug, and by watching others around him. Deon, his "maker", does have an authority over him (which presents an interesting three-way parental dynamic between Mommy, Daddy & Maker) but only limited control. Chappie has limitless potential, at least with the right nurturing. Like any young child.
Ninja and Yo-Landi, who have a major part in the film, are an acquired taste. If you can't stand rappers, if you can't stand their attitude and the way they talk and act, you're going to hate the film. They're such a central part of the plot there's just no way around it. But if you accept them for who they are, realize these people exist (for real!), and go along for the ride, it's not so bad. Yea they barely speak English, yea it's all slang, yea there's some ridiculous moments, but you know what, I had fun watching them. I got it. I almost felt Blomkamp was addressing the question of "how do gangsters exist?" What kind of world are they raised in where they believe this is the only way? Why are they taught to act like that? Chappie provides an answer.
It's an answer not everyone will like. And it's an answer that also manifests itself in the form of cartoons and childlike antics. Chappie, only a "few days old", acts like he is a frightened 6-year-old (I can hear so many critics grumbling about this choice even though the performance is brilliant). Sharlto Copley, wearing a motion-capture outfit, plays Chappie and really brings to life this character. The way he cowers, the way he jumps, and responds to others, everything about it feels so real and that's what he's playing with. Blomkamp has made yet another artificial intelligence story, but backwards – what if it was us, the humans, and not the A.I. itself, that makes the A.I. go crazy (and kill). What happens when greed gets in the way of innovation?
I was more often amused, not frustrated, by so many of the unique choices Blomkamp made, learning from his mistakes on Elysium. At one point Chappie catches the opening to a "Masters of the Universe" cartoon and mimics He-Man pulling a sword over his head (though I was hoping he'd use this move later). He acts childish, and goofy, and unlearned; he acts exactly as he should. It's the ultimate "how do you raise a robot baby?" concept, crafted so neatly into Blomkamp's one-of-a-kind sci-fi social world. He's adorable, and kind of charming, you really feel for Chappie by the end. And that, if anything, is the greatest achievement of this film: fabricating a robot character that really feels like it has more life than most critics reviewing the film.
I'm not sure why so many seem to be out to hate Neill Blomkamp and his movies (Elysium was pretty bad, dumbed down too much, I'll give you that). Perhaps it's because we all have insanely inflated expectations for Blomkamp ever since District 9. Honestly, that film was an anomaly, a wholly unrepeatable creation and we should respect it but not spend every moment hoping we'll get more of exactly that whenever Blomkamp makes new movies. Compared to Jupiter Ascending, a much bigger sci-fi mess and huge waste of potential, Chappie is by far more polished and refined. It has much better execution of big, bold sci-fi concepts that I'm still amazed a movie studio even funded. And as long as you're willing to have fun, it's a very fun movie.
The best way to sum up the attitude of Chappie is by saying that Chappie is the kind of robot who would go up to RoboCop, slap that pansy in the face, and walk away after saying "what up, homie?" That's the kind of experience Blomkamp has delivered – a subversive, goofy sci-fi work giving-the-finger to other sci-fi like the RoboCop remake, Transcendence and Jupiter Ascending. Blomkamp's other homages strewn throughout are meant to make you smile (Wall-E!), but aren't a distraction. It wasn't easy, but I eventually figured out what Blomkamp was going for; only then was I able to really get into it, and enjoy it. He wanted to make the kind of sci-fi movie you show a bunch of kids and they all lose their shit over it because it's crazy awesome. It's a movie about a loveable, charming, goofy robot kid who is taught how to be a gangster and steal money.
The more I think about all Blomkamp tries to accomplish, all the big themes and sci-fi concepts in this one story, the more impressed I am with his third film. Unlike other sci-fi like Elysium and Jupiter Ascending, where I've grown less and less fond as time goes on, Chappie is on a whole other level. I can't wait to see it again. There are a few moments of sci-fi brilliance, and some rough moments to get through too, but it's a thoroughly entertaining experience and interesting one above all. And perhaps, like me, you'll discover just how lovable Chappie (even child-like) is. There's lessons to be learned, social ideas to discuss, and work to be admired in Chappie. It's not perfect, not much ever is, but it's a strong step forward for Neill Blomkamp.