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Nature vs Nurture. It’s an age old debate. Which influences an individual more? CHAPPIE examines this debate through its main character: a sentient robot. He is an artificial intelligence capable of emotion and expression. A robot capable of artistic expression. AI capable of love.
CHAPPIE examines these philosophical elements while maintaining a ticking-clock action-packed scenario. DEV PATEL plays an engineer who finally cracks the code to artificial consciousness. He breaks office protocol and creates this impressive self-aware being. It isn’t long before his storyline collides with that of two hip hop gangsters.
The critics haven’t been too kind to NEILL BLOMKAMP’s third feature, CHAPPIE. They universally adored DISTRICT 9. But they all seem to hate CHAPPIE. I always enjoy the imagery of Blomkamp and his conceptual designs. The world here feels real. I like the way the robots look. I love the way the action is filmed. I suppose what harms this movie most is a lack of focus on human character, and a bland storyline.
For me, a lot of action films fall into these same negatives. They don’t have a standout character that we connect to and the story unfolds as expected. What makes CHAPPIE better than most action flicks is that there is at least one character that I connected with and really cared for. And that was the robot himself, Chappie. Because of him, I enjoyed the ride.
Let’s get into why I -actually- enjoyed CHAPPIE, and what the story was about…
NINJA and YOLANDI (South African rap group DIE ANTWOORD) have 7 days to pay off a gangster debt or die. They decide to pull of a heist. Their plan involves kidnapping a robot programmer to turn off all the police-bots. This will make their heist much easier to pull off.
This eccentric duo track down Patel and kidnap him. They didn’t expect him to be with some precious cargo – robot parts to make a thinking feeling AI creation. Patel convinces these thugs to let him do his experiment, and use Chappie to help with the heist.
Enter HUGH JACKMAN, our antagonist, a rival engineer pimping his own product – a big heavy called: the MOOSE. Think ED-209 from ROBOCOP. The police scout robots are in favour by the government, 100s are ordered to production. Jackman will get left in the dust. His drive for power leads him to chase down Chappie and Patel.
Another ticking-clock is added to the 7 day payback, Chappie’s battery is running low. They can’t replace it because a previous battle welded the battery to the exoskeleton. Convenient right. But this is an action movie. In fact, the plot unfolds as you expect, but the experience is well-executed. I had fun with CHAPPIE.
SHARLTO COPLEY (the star of DISTRICT 9, and the baddie of ELYSIUM) provides the voice and performance capture of Chappie. I instantly loved this creation. Once he’s turned on, Chappie is like a child, scared and innocent. While Patel wants to teach ethics, the thugs want to teach him violence. I loved seeing this child grow to an adult over the course of the film.
Chappie quickly develops a maternal relationship with Yolandi, calling her “Mommy”. It isn’t long before he adopts their hip hop mannerisms and macho attitude. Interesting subtext seems to illuminate how masculine ideals are forced upon a young boy. When Chappie remembers Mommy reading a book (Black Sheep) to him, he plays with a doll that looks like her. Daddy (Ninja) shows up and tells him to put it away. It will make him soft, he wants Chappie to be hard. This theme is further explored as these relationships develop over a few days.
The actors portraying these two gangster parents will split the audience. You will either love them, or hate them. These guys are “Black Sheeps” themselves. They are very quirky. Eclectic. But I enjoyed them. I actually really liked Mommy. I started to really care for her by the end. Where Daddy was a bit of a hard ass, Mommy still had some humanity. Well, certainly more than your average Jo’Burg thug. I also enjoyed the style of these two. It was like 80s hip hop married with punk culture – and a smorgasbord of neons & pastels. I love how Mommy had a pink gun and Daddy a yellow one, for example. The excellent pop aesthetics of CHAPPIE would make ANDY WARHOL happy.
By the end, there is a rather emotional moment between these gangsters and our favourite robot. Patel kind of takes a backseat in the story, as does Jackman as the baddie. The story kind of meanders as we spend a lot of time with Mommy and Daddy. If you hated these guys, this movie must have been torture. For me, it was refreshing. These weren’t your average movie characters we’re used to hanging out with. I didn’t know what to expect from them. They were dangerous. I couldn’t trust them. But I really enjoyed figuring them out and watching their idiosyncratic behaviour.
The story could have been more enjoyable if it was more focused or paired down. I might have enjoyed a simpler one like just find Chappie a battery. Jackman would hunt them down after they plan a heist for robot parts. Instead we get side-tracked by the gangsters and their payback mission. That said, the story we have allows for several action sequences. And a grand finale showdown between engineers and their designs.
My favourite moment might have been when Chappie pets a dog. It shows empathy. It shows he has a heart. He is gentle. He cares about others too. It’s something I would have liked further exploration of. Imagine his parents are killed, he’s emotionally wrecked, and decides upon revenge. Cliched? Sure. But this might have been a more familiar story the naysayers would have liked rather than the gangster storyline.
BLADE RUNNER examines mortality better than any other science fiction film. CHAPPIE explores the same territory. Once Chappie realizes he will die when his battery runs out it breaks his heart. It blows his mind. It shatters his world. Ignorance is bliss, right. Now that he knows of death, he doesn’t want to go to “the next place”. He doesn’t want Mommy to go there either.
He will fight. He will learn more. He will experiment. Anything to quell the darkness within. He must find a way to live. There is no doubt that Chappie is conscious. He has a soul. These elements help reflect our own understanding. In a way, Chappie fights for us. Helping us deal with mortality by seeking an alternative solution. — (Staying spoiler free here, sorry for vagueness.)
CHAPPIE reminds me of 80s films like ROBOCOP and SHORT CIRCUIT, and in a way is a blend of the two. We get intense action with new age robo-cops and lots of laughs from an AI learning to be human. The zany South African gangsters/parents are a great contrast to the noble engineer, ensuring this movie is a fun ride. Once again, with Blomkamp the most enjoyable quality are the SYD MEAD inspired visuals and kinetic energy of the action.
I wonder if the likability factor increases depending on your own level of Black Sheep-ness. That book was about being different and how awesome it is to be unique – just like a Blomkamp film. The highlight here is character. The standout is Chappie himself, but I also really enjoyed the gangster sidekicks of Ninja & Yolandi.
CHAPPIE has heart and soul. It has action and laughs. It has cool gadgets and hyper-visual action scenes. I enjoyed myself. It was nice to think a bit and connect emotionally to an action film. Which is a rare thing of the genre in contemporary cinema.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Did you hate this movie?
Did you love Chappie, the robot? Was he the modern day Johnny Five or E.T.?
What did you think of DIE ANTWOORD? Were they too weird or annoying for you?
What did you think of HUGH JACKMAN? Was he under-utilized?
Did you like the themes, but dislike the storyline?
What do you think of BLOMKAMP’s visuals? Do you like the worlds he creates?
Do you think this director’s career is over now? Will he have to return to the world of low budget films like DISTRICT 9? Will the plug get pulled from his new ALIENS sequel with Sigourney Weaver?