“How was I supposed to know that you would become you?”
The mind is, or can be, the strongest muscle in one’s body. It is also the most impressionable muscle as well. In a near-futuristic Johannesburg, South Africa, crime has curtailed thanks to the deployment of robots on the police force. Created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) and distributed through weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, Wilson is hailed as a genius. Like many great geniuses however, he’s thinking about the next innovation, the next augment. He wants these robots to think and feel for themselves.
But he’s missing one thing: The clearance from his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Still, after successfully building the artificial consciousness, Deon decides to test it on a robot previously left to the scrap heap. The implementation doesn’t go how he envisioned though, as he becomes kidnapped by Ninja (Ninja), Yo-landi (Yolandi), and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a gang looking to utilize a mechanized bot to complete a high-importance heist. Forced to comply or die, Deon reluctantly uploads the program to the bot, and gives not just new life to it, but sentience. Chappie (voice of Sharlto Copley) becomes the name. He is alive, and can be molded into anything a person desires, good and/or bad.
Just in case it wasn’t known, Chappie is directed by the man who did District 9, Neill Blomkamp. Sure, he also did Elysium which was entertaining, but his full-length directorial debut in D9 is held in high regard as not just one of the best science-fictions in recent memory, but even of all time. That amazing height he reached in that debut may be just as much of a curse as it is a gift, similar to Nas’ Illmatic and the trouble he’s had with following that classic. This isn’t to disparage Chappie, which to yours truly is still a fairly solid sci-fi, if somewhat misleading.
With this being the another sci-fi, it is clear that Blomkamp has a comfort within the genre and an appreciation for it. But, the feeling cannot be shook that the world here feels awfully reminiscent to that other film that took place in South Africa, right down to the initial moments and to the explosive finale packed to the brim with a little too much slow-motion. Still, this familiar world and what occurs within it is not irritating to the eyes, or the ears for that matter. The production is of high quality, with the score being a high point done by the legendary Hans Zimmer. Occasionally, the sound mixing and levels are more overpowering than they should be, but it isn’t a consistent occurrence.
Blomkamp is a director full of ideas, some more subtle than others. Chappie is no different, with the only difference with this one being that the themes of autonomy and especially parenting are not as “grand” as health care or racism to name a few. While his examination on child rearing and exactly how parents/environment can shape their offspring is interesting, riveting, and touching in places, the autonomy and what it truly means to be human is underdeveloped, especially when held up to movies such as RoboCop and A Clockwork Orange. It is still a pretty fascinating story for the entirety of the two hour runtime, but saddening also as the trailers (first one, at least) appeared to be going a slightly different direction.
Where there’s Neill Blomkamp there’s Sharlto Copley, this time providing not only the voice but the motion capture work for the titular robot. Much praise has to given to the filmmaker to making Chappie seamlessly integrated into the world, and not an obviously-looking CGI entity. As for actually injecting it with real emotion and child-like wonder, that is all Copley with his movement and verbal delivery. If the plan was to care for Chappie himself throughout, Copley certainly did his job in making yours truly do so.
As essentially Chappie’s father, Dev Patel gives a great performance to a somewhat compelling but still lacking character. There may be a missed opportunity to say more about his usage of technology, his background, and more, but the movie does make the viewer question if Wilson’s aspirations for Chappie, though noble, are really any better than the aspirations had by Ninja and Yo-landi in a vacuum.
But of course, life doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and even if it did, the characters played by the members of rap group Die Antwoord (characters with their actual rap names!) would still be terrible people. Perhaps it isn’t the fact that they are so grating and irritating, but the fact that Blomkamp decides to feature them, mainly Ninja, to the extent that he does only serves to exacerbate the problem. Yo-landi isn’t too bad, but I still get the sneaky feeling that this will likely be the “biggest” movie they both do.
Having Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver usually mean good things in a film, as long as they are used correctly and flat out used at all. Jackman plays Vincent Moore, an engineer who works at the same place that Patel’s character does. These two are on a collision course with opposing viewpoints on technology, which has the makings of something awesome since they are both attempting to achieve the same thing.
However, Moore is eventually turned into a stock antagonist with little motivation, with the turning point occurring at a moment in the film that completely renders his character as a monster with no build towards it, and not to mention any repercussions. For what he is given, Jackman still does well, and it is a nice refresher to see him as the villain. Sigourney Weaver seems to only be here to give a level of star power, as she does nothing more than take space. The role could have easily been removed, or filled with anyone.
Chappie is not a new step in evolution for the genre, but it isn’t utterly riddled with defects either. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of the genre should make use of autonomy and make it a point to view at some point down the line.
Photo credits go to galacticnewsone.com, vanyaland.com, and nydailynews.com.
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