Every director, no matter how big, small or niche, has their own personalized style when it comes to the technical aspects of the stories they choose to tell. For Neill Blomkamp, that style borders on gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails machismo with contemplative, affectionate undertones. His mind is fascinated by adding an element of hyper-realism to real scientific theories and breakthroughs, and then tearing the fabric of those theories to shreds in the context of relying too heavily on that technology to improve our lives. In doing so, Blomkamp spends a lot of his energy exploring the human element of corruption with the advent of new power, and digs deep within the slimy grays of flawed characters who match the cinematography and editing of the films that contain them. This style remains in overdrive as part of Chappie, Blomkamp’s study in the wonders and perils of artificial intelligence.
If I hadn’t have already known, the first fifteen minutes of Chappie makes it clear whose movie this is. Beginning with Blomkamp’s signature narration through news footage and interviews of key personal who won’t ever show up on screen again, I immediately felt this must be some weird sequel to District 9, as it quickly establishes the events taking place in Blomkamp’s favorite location of Johannesburg, South Africa, and we’re introduced to one of the main antagonists who has such a heavy accent, he needs subtitles to be understood. Aside from the alien refugees being traded for a robotic police force, the only thing missing was Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley — that is until Chappie started speaking in complete sentences and I realized Copley was there, just not in the flesh, as the title character. And Copley does a very good job here playing a character that must convincingly mature from a newborn baby to full-fledged adult in a matter of days.
To make that happen, Blomkamp takes a big risk by putting his central focus on a pack of clueless thugs that care for nothing but their own self-preservation, then asks us to see them as more than just manipulative scumbags. But it’s a necessary risk that pays off in the overall themes Blomkamp sets up early on in dealing with this new technology. There is a pure joy and wonder in the discovery of artificial intelligence, led by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the creator of the robot police force, but at the same time, there is an innate fear for loss of control once something like this takes hold within a society. Thus, when Deon wants to test his new program on one of the robots scheduled for termination, his boss, Michelle Bradley (a somewhat bored Sigourney Weaver) refuses, forcing Deon to risk his job, his reputation and his own creation by stealing said robot and testing it in secret.
His plan runs amok when he’s kidnapped by Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), who are in hot water after a drug deal goes bad. In order to get the twenty million dollars they owe crime kingpin Hippo (Brandon Auret), they attempt to force Deon to shut down the robots. When he can’t do that, he trades information about his plan to bring Chappie to life and Ninja’s team (which also includes Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo)) decide it might be better to have their own, personalized robot programmed to do their bidding. The only issue is, Chappie isn’t programmed to do anyone’s bidding other than the one he eventually deems worthy, based on his own evolving behavior and capacity to think rationally and cognitively. This begins Blomkamp’s interesting exploration of the nature versus nurture concept. How much influence do parents have over their child in relation to how much influence society itself has, and can either be overcome by the other?
Deon tries to be the spiritual father, teaching Chappie how to be respectful, artistic and honorable. At the same time, Ninja needs Chappie to be a brute — a tough-as-nails beast who isn’t afraid to eliminate anything that might get in the way of their goals. These conflicting viewpoints grind against Chappie’s sensibilities to the point where confusion is only offset by the one pure relationship Chappie is able to develop — the nurturing love between him and his surrogate mother, Yolandi. She becomes quite protective of Chappie, and without her, the young robot would remain torn between good and evil, righteousness and manipulation, right and wrong. He trusts her, and in a world of betrayal, lies, anger and hatred, that steers his behavior until he realizes that love is far bigger than the simple strokes of a black and white painting.
The dynamics between these characters are never looked upon as one or the other. Each character has an evolution to them that starts with a particular goal and ends with something far different based on the relationships they form through the interactions and experiences they share. When Chappie first starts to understand and mimic those around him (much the way a real toddler will), the dialects, tics and mannerisms he picks up become normal for him. He doesn’t know any better because this is his first exposure to a certain set of behaviors. But they form the base of who he is to become, which is further built upon when Ninja decides to make him a man by leaving him alone to deal with a group of police-hating thugs, who all but tear Chappie limb-from-limb. It is his first exposure to the cruelty of the world and a mark on his soul that won’t ever leave him. It’s the remorse and concern shown by Ninja upon Chappie’s return home that signifies that what was once thought to be just another computerized robot may just be much more than that, and the moral ambiguity of what must be done versus what should be done begins to infiltrate the group more deeply.
On top of all of this, Blomkamp tosses in a secondary plot that involves Chappie discovering whether or not it’s possible to capture someone’s consciousness and export it into a completely new body (an idea I’ve also toyed with slightly in my upcoming book, Memoirs of Keladrayia). What starts as a pretty minor subplot quickly becomes the focus in the last act of the film when one of Deon’s coworkers, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), an ex-military officer and engineer, fixes it so that he can finally test the behemoth robot he designed and wants to sell to the police force. Only then do we see where Chappie’s true loyalties lie, why you can’t judge a book by its cover, and how much influence the world at large has on each and every one of us, based solely on the information we’re given through both our loved ones and a society that thinks they know better.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Cinderella and Run All Night. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.