Chappie is directed by Neill Blomkamp who began life with the critically acclaimed District 9 (2009) and followed it up in 2013 with Elysium which received somewhat mixed reviews. The film is set in a near future Johannesberg where a company called Tetravaal has invented a semi intelligent robot that the local police force has pressed into action to tackle criminal gangs and bring down the crime rate. The inventor of the robots, Deon Wilson, is played by Dev Patel who is determined to realise his vision of a full AI machine that can think and feel for itself. He is kidnapped by two local gang members determined to turn one his machines to their advantage. Little do they know what they are letting themselves in for.
Blomkamp is known for his social commentary in films and while I don’t think this is as prominent in Chappie there are some interesting themes being explored. The main one is innocence lost as Chappie’s new daddy Ninja (played by a South African rapper of the same name) uses his naivety against him to pull off a series of crimes by lying to him. There is also a religious undertone with Hugh Jackman’s character, another employee at Tetravaal, who takes real exception to a robot who in his mind is mimicking God’s own creations. The film is very similar in tone and production design to District 9 with the authorities looking to crack down on an underclass community.
Chappie is receiving largely negative reviews from the film critic community on both sides of the Atlantic. I am not one of them. I acknowledge there are some very real problems. The biggest being the performances of the South African rapping duo of Ninja and Yo-landi Visser who play characters with the same names. They’re not actors and it shows. They’re just a little too cartoony. There are also an inferior performance from Hugh Jackman who isn’t well served by an underwritten character who towards the end starts to do a moustache-twirling villain laugh which is really odd. I don’t even want to mention Sigourney Weaver’s fleeting appearances as the head of the Tetravaal company – she comes across as weak and easily manipulated which is hard to believe as a woman in a mainly mans world.
All that being said and ignoring the obvious similarity to Robocop (1987) and Transcendence (2014) I was won over. The main reason for this was Chappie. ‘He’ is played by Sharlto Copley who performed and voiced the robot before being replaced using a low budget version of motion capture. He sells the character really well and brings some touching humanity to the part. I think I was also looking through the problems to see the fantastic film that is hidden somewhere in Chappie.
There are some interesting themes in this film that could have been explored more thoroughly. I would like to have seen a more developed villain to beef up the clash between science and religion. I would also have liked to have seen two better actors replacing our South African rapper friends whose characters needed to be made more likable as well. Perhaps if they had been forced into their current lifestyle by their social/financial circumstances? I’m going to stick my neck out with this one. My rating 3/5 (really wanted to give it 4/5).