In a nutshell Chappie is quite easy to describe as Wall-E with guns, and for good reason. Set in one of the crime capitals of the world – South Africa – it follows the implementation of a robotic police force known as Scouts that assist the human officers in fighting crime. Dev Patel plays the kid genius behind the project, but despite its sweeping success and contribution to decreasing crime he’s seeking to push the boundaries further and create a fully conscious form of artificial intelligence that could think, feel and exist much like a human. Just when he cracks the program, he’s abducted by gangsters Yolandi and Ninja (played by South African hip hop group Die Antwoord) who want a robot to help them pull off a heist. Working under gunpoint her creates Chappie, who’s more interested in playing with dolls than he is putting people to sleep with ninja stars… at least for now. As his consciousness begins to exponentially develop and he learns more about the human world, his existence creates problems for some limited thinkers, which leads a new kind of destruction to their door.
It’s jarring to think that the best performances in the film come from two very unusual sources: a digitally created robot (although modeled off Sharlto Copley’s real-D, mo-cap performance) and from alternative music’s weirdest customers Die Antwoord. Yolandi and Ninja become faux parents for Chappie – “mummy and daddy” – while infusing the production with their unmistakable Zef aesthetic. On paper, it’s such an unusual choice as they’re consistently breaking the fourth by playing themselves: they wear their own band merch, their crib is decorated with band posters and the film is scored with their complete discography. They are the cool. Yet it works in an unbelievably effective manner, with their rich place within underground South African culture helping infuse some of the more outlandish science fiction premises with authenticity. Patel too is great, bringing a very grounded and emotive performance to the big screen (which elevates the character from being just ‘the tech guy’).
That’s not to say Chappie is without its flaws, the most prominent being Hugh Jackman’s feature-long Sam Worthington impression. He plays a classic Australian guy complete with a mullet, a rugby ball he uses when he’s stressed and the catchphrase “like a frog in a sock, mate”. You know, the kind of stereotype usually found in Punchbowl. A former soldier turned robotics engineer, he also has a weird God complex where he’s opposed to Chappie’s particular type of robot because he considers it “Godless” whereas his prototype – which borders on Star Wars copyright infringement – is superior because it’s operated by a human being whose consciousness is uploaded. Yet for an uber religious guy with a cross on a gold chain draped around his neck like extra from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, he has a bizarre disregard for God’s.children, quite happily massacring them and even brutally tearing one guy in half. Then there’s Sigourney Weaver’s cardboard cutout of a corporate big-wig: a role that’s so restrictive and generic it makes you wonder if it even needed to be there in the first place and why someone of her pedigree should have to play it?
Yet those are two minor details to what is otherwise an emotional and exciting film. On the spectrum of Neil Blomkamp’s work it’s not as good as District 9, but it’s significantly better than Elysium. For most of us that’s bloody well good enough and Chappie fits comfortably inside that gritty hyper-reality of futuristic South Africa. He manages to do what great genre films seek to do and that’s to communicate a poignant message on a wider social issue. While it was racism with District 9 and gentrification with Elysium, Chappie tackles multiple topics – everything from working through an abusive domestic situation to a fear of living a police state. Some of the hardest scenes to watch in the film weren’t the bloody shoot outs, but rather those when a kind and trusting Chappie is showed the darker side of humanity with tsotsis’ bashing the sweet robot with stones, rocks and setting him on fire while he pleads for mercy. It knowingly references some of the country’s more violent periods, which is eerie. Chappie’s relationship with his “daddy” Ninja will also hit home – maybe too closely – for a lot of people, especially those out there with daddy issues. But again, it’s those sincerely human moments that resonate long after half of Johannesburg has been spectacularly destroyed in a riot.
Like all of Blomkamp’s work, Chappie combines a poignant social and political message with an overwhelming amount of heart. Yes, it’s Wall-E with guns but it also goes further than the traditional ‘black sheep’ tale and pushes the moral and mechanical boundaries.
Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.