Directed by Neill Blomkamp
When director Neill Blomkamp announced he was going to make another sci-fi epic set in South Africa, I worried that his go-to AI plotline had run its course. After Best Picture nominee “District 9” in 2009 and “Elysium” in 2013, “Chappie” seemed like an unnecessary addition to the Blomkamp résumé. I was wrong.
In the very near future, Johannesburg will be ravaged by violent crime. A weaponry company will create an army of robot cops to help fight the crime that’s suffocating their city. The robots’ creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is sure that these “scouts” are the future of police work. But his coworker Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) fears that artificial intelligence will overrun mankind and instead offers his bulkier, more expensive robotic alternative, the Moose, which is run by a real human being. When three thugs from Johannesburg’s criminal underbelly (Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, and Jose Pablo Cantillo) come across a decommissioned scout named Chappie (Sharlto Copley in a motion-capture suit), and force Wilson to reprogram him to suit their criminal motives, they’ll soon realize they’re in way over their heads.
So often, moviegoers shy away from settings and stories that don’t necessarily relate to them. I can’t say I’ve never been guilty of that. But Neill Blomkamp makes the criminal-ridden urban Johannesburg of the future one of cinema’s most interesting settings. Thugs like Ninja and Yolandi (two members of South Africa’s rap-rave group Die Antwoord, who contribute a song to the film’s credits), with funky hairstyles and bright pastel clothes, are so unlike what most Americans are used to that it’s hard to see them as realistic characters. But then you watch them act, as Chappie’s “mommy” and “daddy,” and their emotional presence is apparent. Dev Patel is also capable of a high level of emotional intensity, especially toward the film’s end. (An end, I’ll add as an aside, that is highly unpredictable…I thought the trailer told us too much about the story, but it leaves more than enough out.) The worst part of the movie may have been Hugh Jackman’s atrocious mullet, tight-fitting shorts, and judgmental eyes. Even at his worst, Jackman can’t ruin a good movie. Copley playing Chappie is another testament to the power of good motion-capture and visual effects. While the film as a whole was not effects-heavy, Chappie is a visual feat. He was meticulously envisioned.
Writer Terri Tatchell worked with Blomkamp on “District 9,” and the similarities are apparent. Like “District 9,” “Chappie” ends without really ending. Science fiction is only as good as its relevance to real life. I only wish other filmmakers understood that as well as Neill Blomkamp.