Blomkamp's black sheep
The future is a violent, dreadful, technologically advanced apocalypse policed by machines. If Earth-based Hollywood sci-fi has bombarded audiences with one theme it would be that the future tragically represents both the pinnacle and collapse of civilization. Several legendary filmmakers boast brilliant science-fiction narratives in their oeuvre: Ridley Scott (Alien¸ Blade Runner, Prometheus), Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Prestige), Danny Boyle (Sunshine, 28 Days Later), James Cameron (Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens, Avatar), and Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange); however, South African director Neill Blomkamp has risen among the ranks in recent years to become the most exciting name regarding the popular genre. His 2009 freshman film, District 9, received the honor of a Best Motion Picture of the Year nomination at the 2010 Academy Awards and 2013 sophomore effort, Elysium, re-established Matt Damon as a leading man and continued with the same rich characterization and real-world application as its predecessor. Blomkamp’s most recent motion picture, Chappie, continues with the filmmaker’s unique style of sci-fi at its core: a complex narrative representation of the issues and problems plaguing the present day.
Chappie follows the titular robot, Chappie, a sentient machine with a problem among all Blomkamp protagonists: an urgent race against time. Wikus raced against becoming a prawn in District 9, Max had a limited time to live in Elysium, and Chappie has a low battery (five days’ time). Just like Wikus van de Merwe, Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley (Maleficent, The A-Team) plays Chappie. Blomkamp and Copley have been best friends since high school with the actor always collaborating on the director’s projects. Copley, despite his star not taking off after his breakout performance in District 9, proves yet again that his ability to perform and become a sympathetic character isn’t limited to human beings only—but also CGI aliens and robots that carry more humanity than most characters out of any blockbuster you choose these days. Chappie is the best part of Chappie.
Right away the message is clear— the “newborn” Chappie has to learn and make sense of the world just like any growing human being with a soul would. Blomkamp allows the audience to see every step of Chappie’s journey even the events leading up to his creation, and it’s for this reason you root for Chappie— it’s difficult for anybody to not see a little bit of themselves in the developing artificial intelligence. Chappie experiences creation, mother’s love, the concept of mortality, unwarranted hate, father’s cruelty, and lying. Like most, Chappie would prefer to live and let live, but, unfortunately, he is raised in the slums of future Johannesburg, South Africa, where most of the inhabitants would rather shoot or blow him up with a grenade because they mistook him for a cop. His consciousness resides in a robotic police unit that was scheduled for demolition until his creator pulled the “Robocop” out of the scrap and uploaded the new software, hence the “reject” sticker he bears on his forehead for half of the film. Chappie, unfortunately, meets true rejection from all sides throughout, adding to his human experience.
With two films opening on the same weekend, actor Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Last Airbender) looks to make a strong showing at the box office. In addition to Chappie, the British actor also appears in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Patel offers his best performance to date in Chappie as Deon, a brilliant, Tetravaal (a fictional corporation) computer engineer who creates Chappie and fights to give him a chance at his own life despite what the gangsters who take advantage of him want. Deon has an unfortunate God-complex and is compelled to create Chappie if only to satisfy his massive curiosity and for the sheer achievement. Patel, however, makes Deon more than just a mad scientist, but also as a benevolent presence who wants nothing for Chappie than happiness. Chappie has a “mommy” and a “daddy,” but he always calls Deon his “maker.” In all of Chappie’s influences, Deon certainly rises as the most positive.
Most of Chappie’s other acquaintances don’t share Deon’s optimism or patience. Hugh Jackman (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Prisoners) plays Chappie’s primary antagonist, Moore. Moore is a former soldier-turned-engineer who developed a failed robotic policing program called “the moose” and still tries to push said program on the CEO (the timeless Sigourney Weaver). Unfortunately for Moore, Deon’s robotic police division became Tetravaal’s bread and butter which absorbed most of his funding, subsequently leaving the “moose” on the backburner. Jackman’s Moore stands for everything that would be the undoing of Chappie. The sentient robot never did anything to Moore, but while he exists, Moore will never attain the riches and praise to which he feels entitled. While typically playing the good guy, it was a nice change of pace to see Jackman play the bad guy. Especially when that bad guy had a hilarious mullet and khaki shorts. This campiness saturates the terrifying, flip-of-a-switch nature that Jackman brings to the role, but ultimately adds an element of surprise to his outbursts.
Rounding out the cast are two rappers from the South African zef rap group Die Antwoord, Ninja and Yo-Landi, whose characters surprisingly also go by Ninja and Yolandi. Ninja, Yolandi, and their third crony, Amerika, work for a delusional, greedy slumlord who forces them to pay him $20 million that he’s “owed” at film’s beginning when a squad of robot police scouts breaks up the party. Ninja’s crew escapes the police raid with their lives and decides a heist is the only way to pay back the $20 million to this other gangster. Knowing absolutely nothing about computers, engineering, or seemingly any technology in general, Ninja’s crew abducts Deon in the hopes that he can shut the “robocops” off long enough to make off with their heist because he invented the software. Deon can’t do this, but instead, presents them with their (and his) only option—a robot that can learn and be taught to do things, like heists. With at least three separate factions all focused on Chappie, what is the robot supposed to think, do, or act? The choice, ultimately, is up to him.
While certainly no District 9, Chappie has a lot going for it. The film raises issues and continues to pose questions for the viewer as the narrative flows. Does Chappie have a soul? Almost certainly, it would seem, but the answer is offered a bit too heavy-handed at times. Jackman’s villain is annoyingly pushy, the gangsters’ dialogue never really gets beyond talking about being gangsters, and Deon disappears for a good amount of the film. The ethical and moral dilemmas of humanity and the reasoning behind choices people make are all at the forefront in Chappie, a movie about a robot more human than his human counterparts. Blomkamp continues to establish his name as a leader in sci-fi filmmaking with another strong showing. Look for Blomkamp to keep rolling with the genre as his next two projects are a fifth Alien movie and a District 9 sequel. Don’t be surprised when Chappie gets a second chapter, as well.