Chappie is a film unmistakably from director Neill Blomkamp (Elysium, District 9). This means that if you’re a fan of Blomkamp’s previous sci-fi visions then you will find much to enjoy in Chappie, which bears much in common with the rubbish dump look, choppy tone and violet video gamey action of its forebears. It also shares its siblings’ love of big ideas – equality, underdogs, transformations – albeit ideas which give way to final act action setpieces.
Chappie, rooted in South African ‘zef’ culture, follows Deon (Dev Patel), a brilliant engineer who created the ‘Scout’ robot now used by the South African police force. Deon works for Tetravaal, a weapons manufacturer headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver in a glorified cameo). Bradley refuses to invest in Deon’s designs for a robot with ‘true’ artificial intelligence however, forcing Deon to take matters into his own hands.
Unfortunately for Deon, he’s kidnapped by a trio of trash-talking gangster types: Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika. Ninja and Yolandi are fictionalised versions of the real life Ninja and Yolandi – members of the South African rap-rave band Die Antwoord. The pair effectively play themselves in the movie, rather their stage personas. It’s cleverly meta and tongue-in-cheek – a conscious decision by Blomkamp no doubt, who is now known for his pseudo-documentary style and reportedly developed the story for Chappie while listening to Die Antwoord during the production of Elysium. Fortunately for us, the gangsters are surprisingly charismatic and it’s their intervention which leads to Deon creating Chappie, the world’s first robot that can think for itself.
Chappie, born with the mind of a child, is brilliantly brought to life by Blomkamp collaborator and good friend Sharlto Copley (Wikus van der Merwe from District 9). Copley provides Chappie’s voice and motion capture, creating a sympathetic synthetic that gives the film its emotional core. Developing much faster than the normal human child, Deon is distraught that Chappie is being raised ‘wrong’ by the gangster trio – raising interesting questions of nature vs nurture. As with Blomkamp’s other films however, he leaves us to ponder the answers to these questions and others.
The villain of the piece is Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, Deon’s rival engineer who also works for Tetravaal and is against the concept of artificial intelligence. Jackman plays up his Aussie roots for the role and is as ‘cross as a frog in a sock’ that his human-piloted ‘Moose’ robot has been passed over for Deon’s Scouts. The creation of Chappie gives Vincent the opportunity to gain Bradley’s favour and put the Moose in action. It all leads to one of Blomkamp’s violent finales, which is sure to please the director’s faithful.