Chappie – Not what the critics wanted but ‘Zef so fresh’*

*Warning: Review contains minor spoilers*

Chappie is director Neil Blomkamps’ third offering and it has come under some heavy criticism from critics who are angry it wasn’t the movie they wanted it to be. Well tough luck, it’s better than the movie you wanted it to be. The majority of reviewers seemed to want Chappie to delve into the arguments surrounding artificial intelligence. Is it wrong for scientists and engineers to play God? Or should it be pushed to its limits in the aid of creation and progress? Chappie certainly hints at these arguments throughout but it isn’t really what the movie is about. Thank goodness, we’ve seen enough of those moral balancing acts. Time for something different.

The basic outline of the plot is as follows: Johannesburg is a crime epicentre which is now being policed by AI robots, known as Scouts. They’re doing quite well in reducing crime but Vincent Moore, played by Hugh Jackman, is unhappy his human controlled behemoth The Moose isn’t being utilised ahead of these ‘Godless’ creatures. The creator of the droids Deon, played by Dev Patel, wants to push his work further and create a sentient robot that can think and feel like a human. Meanwhile Die Antwoord, basically playing themselves, have Deon in their sights as someone who can help them get free of a particularly nasty gangster who will kill them if they fail to pay his debt. Enter Chappie, a scout commissioned for destruction that Deon steals and makes conscious, but not before being kidnapped by Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika. Unpredictable events ensue.

Chappie also doesn’t really qualify as a science fiction film either, although of course it will fall in this genre. Chappie, the main character, is portrayed as a human rather than the physical robot he actually is. Chappie is about a boy being pulled in three different directions. His ‘mummy’ (Yolandi) just wants to love him like any mother loves their child. The creator (Deon) wants Chappie to maximise his potential and his ‘daddy’ (Ninja) wants him to assist in a heist. Being only days old, this is all very complicated for Chappie, as smart as he is. He makes promises he doesn’t fully understand and tries his best to please everyone. All the while he is discovering the joyous highs of what life has to offer (painting, literature, dogs), as well as the horrifying lows (violence, dishonesty, death). Eventually he must learn for himself what is right and what he should do.

Only the heartless will fail to be moved by Chappie’s struggles, or amused by his transition into a streetwise gangsta. “Chappie has bling.” There are some truly heart touching moments, such as when Chappie is attacked by a gang of youths despite his confused pleas for them to stop and when Yolandi is reading him Black Sheep (perhaps a metaphor for the movie as a whole in addition to Chappie).

The casting of the film is interesting to say the least and there are some definite flaws here. Sigourney Weaver’s character is so boring and pointless she may as well not exist. There’s really nothing to say about her. Hugh Jackman’s villain is more of a shell than a fully fleshed out character. His extreme rage or psychopathic nature is not explained and his Australian idiosyncrasies are a little overdone. He doesn’t fit quite right and this lets the film down. What’s surprising is that Die Antwoord aren’t horrible as actors or characters. At times they are shaky but for the most part they’re enjoyable viewing, especially Yolandi who is so taken by Chappie she becomes more conflicted than we might have expected. Ninja is not particularly likeable for most of the movie but we learn to understand him and he does redeem himself in the latter stages. One scene specifically showcases his humane qualities. Chappie is inspecting a dog that has been killed in a gambling ring. Ninja looks upon the animal with what seems like regret and sympathy despite his previously violent tempers and dismissive attitude. He remarks; ‘It’s dead Chappie. Life is hard; you have to be tough to survive.’ He points to a dog still living. ‘Do you want to be this dog or that dog?’ We see here Ninja is not inherently evil but he does what he needs to do to survive. Later we see how deeply he cares for Chappie and Yolandi. He even aids Deon, who he openly showed derision towards earlier. Sharlto Copley does a great job as Chappie, aided of course by a fantastic effects team. Dev Patel is acceptably earnest and ambitious as a man who truly cares about his creation.

Die Antwoord get plenty of free publicity and perhaps they should. They’re a major reason this film looks so good, with their colourful self-styled outfits and weapons along with their graffiti riddled place of residence. Their music makes up probably half the score and adds to the film’s offbeat tone. Chappie is amazing to watch, especially after he has been remodelled by his new family.

All in all the film takes an unexpected approach which generally works. The comic relief throughout the middle act is welcome and not too over the top. The plight of Chappie struggling to cope with life is engaging and touching. The action sequences are well executed and entertaining. Jackman and Weaver are weak links through no fault of their own and some elements are not afforded the effort and explanation they need. Chappie isn’t a masterpiece but it’s nowhere near as bad as the critics want you to think it is.

Recommendation: See it before it leaves theatres.

*Enter The Ninja – Die Antwoord

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