Posted March 6, 2015 by Daniel Hodgson in
A whimsical film, quirky, weird and unforgettable. Copley’s performance, filled with raw humanity, gives Andy Serkis a run for his money for this type of acting.
A mash-up of Short Circuit and Robocop, Chappie is the latest film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. Chappie is a sci-fi fairy-tale about a robot who, like Pinocchio, comes to life, and must decide if he’s going to follow his conscience.
Scout #22 is a police robot that fights the heavily armed gangs of the crime-ridden city of Johannesburg. The robot, made of titanium and circuitry, is one of a hundred automatons manufactured by the Tetravaal corporation, without identity of its own, obedient and unfeeling.
Everything changes for #22 when it is nearly destroyed after a battle with a local crime-lord, Hippo (Brandon Auret). Designated to be scrapped for spare parts, #22 is saved by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the creator of the Scout robots, who wants to upload the robot with an experimental program that will give it self-consciousness.
All does not go according to plan. Deon absconds with #22’s battered frame and crates full of spare parts, but is abducted by a trio of gangstas, Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser), Amerikan (Jose Pablo Cantillo), and their leader, Ninja (Ninja), who want Deon to deactivate all of the Scouts so that they can pull off a heist, owing $20 million to Hippo. Deon cannot do so, but offers to give them #22 to assist them if they’ll let him live, promising that a sentient robot can learn anything, including armed robbery.
#22 is reprogrammed and rebooted with self-awareness, and enters the world like a newborn, without any knowledge of the world around him. Deon teaches him his first word, “watch.” Excited about everything, Yolandi calls him a “Happy chappy,’ and so that becomes his name, Chappie.
Sharlto Copley, who starred in Blomkamp’s District 9, provides the voice of Chappie and gives the motion capture performance for the character. Copley takes the character of the robot, and invests it with the raw humanity of a child. Chappie is curious, trusting, and imitates what he sees and hears, including the gansta’ gestures and speech of Ninja and Amerikan, which makes for several humorous scenes; it’s an effective comedic performance. However, Copley is up to task for dramatic scenes, such as when Ninja abandons Chappie in the streets to teach him about the cruelty of the world around him. It’s a performance to give Andy Serkis a run for his money for this type of acting.
Trouble is, Chappie is more human than the humans around him, who are written like one-dimensional cartoon characters. Hippo is especially so. Most of the characters speak in monosyllabic, three-word sentences, and the movie emphasizes action sequences over everything else, like a saturday morning action cartoon.
If you can approach Chappie with the mindset that it is just that, a live-action cartoon for adults, particularly young adults, then it’s an entertaining film. Like last year’s Lucy, it’s a weird movie, ridiculous, but in a fun way.
Parents should note that although the movie is about a childlike robot that kids might identify with, Chappie earns its R-rating for pervasive strong language. It’s also bloody in places, and at one point, a man is ripped in half. At times, the film seems confused as to who it’s supposed to be for.
Sigourney Weaver makes an extended cameo as the Tetravaal CEO, and Hugh Jackman is wasted as a secondary villain, a rival robotics inventor who builds an ED-209 -inspired drone for Chappie to battle in the obligatory robot-vs.-robot climax.
As a film about artificial intelligence, the material has been handled in a more thoughtful, mature way in I, Robot, but this is a far more whimsical film than that, quirky, weird and unforgettable, with a relatable, titanium hero. Born into a harsh, violent world, there is a spark of goodness in Chappie, and a fearful awareness of his own mortality. Those two things make him as human as you or I.