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Film Review: Chappie

Review by Graeme Wood
15.03.15

 

Chappie_filmtrailer

Neil Blomkamp brings us his third feature following the critically acclaimed audience favourite ‘District 9’ and the less successful Hollywood looking but soulless ‘Elysium’.

In a near future Johannesburg a robot police force are being deployed to clean up the gangster ruled streets of the city. The robots creator Deon Wilson dreams of taking the robots development further and introducing a consciousness, something his finance driven boss Michelle Bradley forbids. Taking matters into his own hands Deon steals a badly damaged robot in an attempt to upload his new software, plans go badly awry however when a criminal gang kidnap him and he is forced to adapt the robot in a plan to make it steal for them. Meanwhile, his rival for funding Vincent Moore, frustrated by the company’s refusal to further develop his altogether less subtle ‘Moose’ law enforcement robot programme, exploits the situation to his own ends.

It’s an intriguing scenario especially with the surrounding South African backdrop providing a different visual feel and the pacy narrative is never less than gripping. The essence of the film is that Chappie_FilmStillonce adapted with a consciousness Chappie, as the robot is named; will quickly develop into something more than human. It’s a familiar theme for movies this year having been explored in ‘Ex-Machina’ and the soon to arrive ‘Avengers-Age of Ultron’. ‘Chappie’ plays as more intelligent version of Robocop but there is also plenty of humour to be had in the scenes of Chappie’s childlike growth and his behaviour when copying the slang and attitudes of his gangsta ‘mother’ Yolandi and ‘father’ Ninja. Yet there is also a certain sadness that he is so easily led into acts of criminality, drawing some parallels with bad parenting skills perhaps. Yet the film never tips over into gimmicky or sentimental overplay, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell ensure matters remain earthy, edgy and never more than a moment away from quite shocking violence.

What is remarkable is how easily we warm to Chappie itself, played using motion capture and voiced by District 9’s Sharlto Copley, the very metal looking robot mimics human body language well enough to covey its awkwardness and emotions with ease. As it develops you can see it moving from curious child through adolescence to gullible adult without it changing appearance accept for an amusing ‘street’ makeover complete with tattoos and bling. Even Chappie’s face somehow manages to convincingly emote while remaining nothing more than a small screen with moving parts and lights.

Visually there is little attempt to glamorise the city itself and it remains a bleak landscape with Blomkamp focusing on its more downtrodden areas. Like his two previous films it is worth noting that save for Dev Patel’s Deon Wilson almost all of the company employees and gangsters are played by Chappiefilm_kushfilms.comwhite actors. A few smaller roles within the police force only are played by black actors. Do Chappie and Deon, persecuted throughout; therefore represent something more than their characters? It’s hard to say as, despite there being plenty of opportunity for racial allegories; the writers do not appear especially interested in delving too deeply into the social aspects of matters. For example, no attempts are made to draw on why people would be so accepting of a robotic police force, though there is a religious sub-plot touched upon when Moore views Chappie’s self-awareness as a god-less abhorrence.

Some may struggle with the first act which is a little too hectic and packed with unlikeable criminals speaking in barely distinguishable South African slang. Oddly the cut I saw had subtitles for a character who was perfectly comprehensible but none for snatches of the Afrikaans dialogue.

Dev Patel is therefore our only identification figure, at least until Chappie is rebooted, and handles the role of benign father with likeability and charm, though any real scientists watching may be wincing at his work methods. Oddly the two least well drawn characters are played by the biggest Chappie_HughJackmannames. Sigourney Weaver gets to scowl a lot in her office but is sorely underused, while Hugh Jackman relishes his casting against type as antagonist Moore whose motivation, while explained becomes unbelievable as he resorts to increasingly melodramatic methods to prove his robot is every bit as good as Deon’s. If this is supposed to represent his inner clash between veteran soldier and the scientist he has become then it merely falls into Alpha Male territory.

Of the other cast both actors who play the robot’s surrogate parents, Ninja (yes that’s his actual name) and Yo-Landi Visser, who are part of a rap group in real life, bring a down to earth and very South African feel to things, Ninja is the least likeable and brings little warmth or presence to his mindless gangsta shtick, both feel ‘too white’ though to have cast black actors would have felt too stereotypical. There characters bear the same names and though shrill and unlikeable they have an interesting arc within the film. The bond they develop with Chappie seems to bring them together as a family unit to the point that both become heroic in the last act. This supports the development of Chappie and draws on the underlying theme of family. Not that it all ends in a cosy finale; after a number of high octane action sequences, delivered by Blomkamp in all their messy glory, the climax is even more visceral. The fact that you’re rooting for two criminals and a robot says much about the way the film draws you into this unusual, flawed but inventive story. There is a hasty epilogue about transferring human consciousness into robot bodies that makes little sense and leaves Chappie an ultimately flawed but very enjoyable film.


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