Director: Neil Blomkamp
Notable Cast: Sharlto Copley (District 9), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Jose Pablo Cantillo (The Walking Dead), Hugh Jackman (X-Men), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), Anderson Cooper
Many of us will have a soft spot here and there for Robots and AI in cinema that have achieved consciousness. Wall-E, Johnny 5, Gigolo Joe, the Tin Man, Data, Edward Scissorhands…the list is quite vast. Those who are either maligned by humanity or sacrifice themselves for the sake of humanity or both, tend to endear themselves even more. These beings are often cast as individuals who have or do, in the course of the movie, achieve some tragic state that is not their fault. Chappie is a fellow that represents all of these themes, and his movie is a wonderfully enjoyable entertainment piece that does not necessarily break any new ground. That’s ok; it is still very much worth your time to give it a watch.
In Johannesburg at some non-specific point in the near future, I think, a small business and one particularly brilliant software developer have come up with a robotic police force that can save hundreds of lives. But Deon, played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, is not satisfied with the performance of his Scouts. He wants to achieve AI. Hugh Jackman’s Vincent does not appreciate the way in which Deon’s Scouts have shunted his own Moose Combat Fighting Robot from any chance of being sold. And a particular trio of criminals (including The Walking Dead alum, Jose Pablo Cantillo) gets the brilliant idea that if they kidnap Deon, he can reprogram one of the Scouts for crime. The timing of his kidnapping arrives in the pefect storm of Deon discovering the secret to AI code, and being denied by his boss, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, permission to use a Scout for testing the new AI program.
The movie is from the same creative team that developed District 9, including star of that film Sharlto Copley, who does Chappie’s voice. It has the same kind of vibe as District 9, including tone, cinematography, ultra-violence, and other various elements. While I really liked this film, it does not have the same depth of emotional hooks as some other Pinocchio-style flicks. That effect may come from the fact that I did not watch it in a single sitting, so I was periodically removed from the emotional swells. Still, I think that overall perception is accurate. Let me say that the movie on-screen is significantly different from either the initial or the pre-release trailers. Chappie spends much of his time as a criminal, and very little time as a hero. One of the reasons he does not come off as endearing as some other movie robots is that I did not spend a lot of time thinking that he was helpless, and he does not spend a lot of time sacrificing himself for the sake of others. He is certainly dealt the crappy end of the stick, and many are trying to take advantage of him. But in the end, Chappie just did not get me to the point of watering eyes as some other golems have.
All of the acting performances in the movie are just fine. Special kudos go to Yo-Landi Visser, one of two members of South African band Die Antwoord who star in the film. Playing a sort of on-screen riff of herself, Visser immediately bonds with Chappie , with her assuming the role of Chappie’s mother. Their moments are endearing, as she seems to be the only one who just wants Chappie to be what he wants to be, and does not engage in the contest for his soul that wages between his maker and “daddy” Ninja. You have to get through an adjustment to buy into that plotline, because she’s the one who hatches this whole maniacal plan, and she never tries to stop Chappie from being enlisted to pull of the film’s major heist. If you let that go, it works quite well and Visser, despite not being an actress by trade, really gets her teeth into it.
The one major knock on this film that I would give is alluded to by the plot disconnect I mention above, in terms of who characters are and what motivates them. Visser is a criminal, but takes on an endearing attachment to a robot that she said should be captured and used to pull off a major crime. In similar fashion, Jackman’s character makes one mention of going to church early in the film, and then becomes a maniacal religious fanatic in the movie’s finale. It’s a sudden leap that is jarring and you are left going “Wait…What?” And at one point, Chappie goes from near-bumbling toddler-youth to scripting his own portable AI. Stuff that maybe has to be done to move the plot along, but it is not done as smoothly as I would have preferred.
As far as streaming content goes, this is one of the better movies out there. It is solid in performance, visuals, sound design, and makes for a great Saturday night popcorn flick. It might also suit as an inside date movie that both guys and girls can get into. It also fills the bill for those who have been jonesing for the District 9 sequel that we still have not gotten.