REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
Set in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa, “Chappie” offers a bleak, dystopian view of the future. An automated police force uses high-tech robots to keep a restive underclass under control.
However, the real villain is neither criminal thugs nor their police oppressors. It is the robotics manufacturer, Tetra Vaal. The private firm makes big bucks by producing robots, then selling them to the police force. The company is headed by a cold-hearted capitalist, Dianne Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). She revels in the fact that intermittent uprisings by the criminal elements enhance the firm’s bottom line.
At the outset of the film, various newscasters including Anderson Cooper, narrate faux documentary snippets. The film then flashbacks to 18 months before.
Deon (Dev Patel), the chief designer at Tetra Vaal, has created a line of fast-moving, human scale Scout robots. Although these titanium creations are not invincible, they have proven effective at squelching the crime wave.
Vincent Moore (
) is another member of the Tetra Vaal staff. It doesn’t take long to realize that he is a bad guy. The one-time soldier is rocking a mullet. Moore has designed an alternate prototype, a gargantuan robot, called Moose. By using a virtual remote control system that Moore has designed, he can control his mechanized alter-ego. Shades of “Real Steel,” in which Jackman played a character, who did the same thing.
When Moore pitches his newly created model to Bradley, she rejects it. According to her, all of the company’s resources must be allocated to the Scout line of robots, designed by Deon. Predictably, Moore is brimming with resentment towards his younger, fellow designer.
Deon conjures up an idea for sentient robots. He is convinced that it will constitute an enhancement of the Scout line that he has created.
In a shoot out, one of the Scout robots is rendered inoperative. Deon sees it as an opportunity to experiment. He meets with Bradley and requests permission to try implanting his new program into it. However, Bradley expresses her satisfaction with the extant product line that the police force is eagerly buying. She forbids Deon from diddling around with it.
Frustrated, Deon surreptitiously sneaks the destroyed robot out of the plant and into his private, home workshop. He repairs it, then installs a program that will provide the robot, soon to be dubbed Chappie, with human cognitive capabilities. Initially, it will start off with the intellectual level of a neonate. Thereafter, its brain power will grow organically.
A bumbling band of criminal bottom feeders, including Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones, Yo-landi (Yo-landi Visser), and Amerika aka Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) have botched their latest drug deal. They show up at the lair of their supplier, Hippo (Darren Auret). Outraged, to demonstrate his displeasure, Hippo randomly shoots a fourth member of the gang. Hippo then informs the remaining three that they have one week to come up with $20 million or he’ll kill them all.
How will they be able to come up with the money? They decide to kidnap Deon and force him to turn over Chappie to them. Over Deon’s vehement protestations, they attempt to train Chappie to become, “robot gangster #1.”
The cast is well-assembled. Dev Patel starred in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” He also plays a central character in John Madden’s “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” also coincidentally released this week. He does effective work here as a character, who starts the film as a starry-eyed idealist. Eventually, he transitions into a more pragmatic realist. Sharlto Copley previously played the lead in Bloomkamp’s feature debut, “District 9.” Here, he voices Chappie. Through the use of motion capture photography, Copley also provides the actions of the character. Copley essays a wide range of personalities, from a timorous naïf at the outset, to mimicing the gangster swagger of Ninja and Ameriko, to eventually appropriating the robotic analogue of Deon’s persona. It is an impressive tour de force.
Hugh Jackman ordinarily plays heroic leads and other sympathetic characters. As a villain, he uses his hunky physique and snarling mien to advantage. Watkin Tudor Jones and Yo-landi Visser hail from the South African rap outfit, Die Antwoord. Rumors swirled of their unruly behavior on the set. Neither of them is a trained actor. However, their anarchic predilections enhance the film. Rounding out the principal criminal trio, Jose Pablo Cantillo, is colorful and provides plenty of attitude. As the rival ganger, Hippo, Brandon Auret sports an impressive physique, a distinctive coiffure, and an outlandish persona. Every time that he makes one of his intermittent appearances, he lights up the screen. Only Sigourney Weaver, as a colorless corporate executive, seems to missing out on all the fun.
This is the third feature from Neill Blomkamp, who directed “Chappie” and co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Terri Titchell. He made his acclaimed debut with “District 9,” a thinly disguised allegory about apartheid in his native South Africa. Blomkamp followed up with another dark, original screenplay for “Elysium.” Starring Matt Damon and Jody Foster, it dramatized the perils of social stratification and how it impacts health care in the future. The third time around, Blomkamp makes yet another dystopian, futuristic film.
Some will deride Blomkamp as a one-trick pony. However, his screenplays are full of socially-conscious ideas. Blomkamp merges them with plenty of action and an ability to move the narrative along. Seemingly by design, he obfuscates the iconography of his films. Blomkamp challenges the viewer to reconsider traditional notions of good and evil as well-demarcated entities.
Jules Cook provides an imaginative production design. It includes a high rise, which was once a deluxe high rise. However, now it has now been abandoned, hollowed out, and is being used for dog fights.
The prolific German composer, Hans Zimmer, has cranked out over 150 scores. In addition to his Oscar for “The Lion King,” he has garnered four Grammys, three classical BRIT Awards, and two Golden Globes. His oeuvre includes such memorable works as “Gladiator,” “Inception,” and “Interstellar.” Typically, his scores merge orchestral and electronic music. In “Chappie,” Zimmer deviates from his usual approach in favor of a score that is exclusively electronic. It is an evocative complement to the visual text.
The film benefits from a conceptually provocative screenplay, effective direction, idiosyncratic performances, and top-notch production values. “Chappie” is another engaging film from auteur, Neill Blomkamp.
*** R (for violence, language and brief nudity) 120 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.