CHAPPiE is South African director Neill Blomkamp’s third theatrical release, yet you would be forgiven for thinking this was made after his debut with District 9 and prior to Elysium.
CHAPPiE feels like a response to those who didn’t think much of the comparatively more grandiose Elysium and wanted Blomkamp to return to something more akin to District 9; which Blompkamp seems to have obliged, as CHAPPiE almost comes across as a spiritual sequel.
So far many of the reviews have not been kind towards CHAPPiE; which is difficult to understand as the critical consensus for District 9 was overwhelmingly positive. Despite similarities between the two films, this is not an instance of a director rehashing a previous idea and cashing it in. CHAPPiE is very much its own film, but the similarities come across as being stylistic cues reminding the viewer whose film they are watching.
Once again Blomkamp has set a film in his home town of Johannesburg, South Africa. This both benefits the film visually as Johannesburg is not a prevalent filming location by any means and as result stands out among the various US cities we’re all familiar with (or the increasing inclusion of London because of the tax incentives). Blompkamp chose Johannesburg because it’s where he came from, and it also helps to encapsulate and support the narrative that he is trying to tell.
CHAPPiE once again demonstrates how much Blomkamp understands how to utilise special effects and the film for the most part feels “real”. The careful use of effects make this vision of the near future believable. A robotic police force patrolling Johannesburg before the end of the decade, on paper that doesn’t sound very likely, but I believe it in CHAPPiE.
Chappie himself is a wonderful character, but also one that seems to have alienated (pun very much intended) the reviewers. Chappie is meant to be a child that is coming to grips with a world that doesn’t understand him, nor is it ready for him. Chappie is a defective police scout robot who after a series of events receives an AI program that the scouts creator, Deon Wilson (played by Dev Patel), has been working on in private. Despite Deon being the creator, Chappie’s parents are actually a couple of Joberg gangsters who end up “acquiring” him. This results in an automatic dysfunctional family scenario with Yolandi stepping up to be the caring mother, whilst Ninja becoming the selfish father figure.
The thing with Ninja and Yolandi is that they are actually playing fictionalised versions of themselves. Those are their stage names, and those tattoos are certainly real. Despite neither being actors (only Ninja had previously acted for a short film) they both provide a believable performance and help add to the style that Blomkamp seemed to be aiming for.
Sharlto Copley also returns (marking another Blompkamp characteristic) yet most people probably wouldn’t even realise until they saw the credits. Copley plays Chappie, and not just the voice, he also provides the full motion capture as well, which is why Chappie’s movements are so endearing. This is supported by the voice work as well; at first Chappie only provides a few robotic and broken words mimicking what is said by those around him. As the film progresses his sentences expand and develop. For the most part they’re still rather childlike with lines such as: ‘The bad man in the van hurt me, Mommy! Even though I said stop!’ Yet as previously stated he is essentially a child who is still learning about this cruel world that doesn’t accept him.
When you take this into account the thematic connections with District 9 again become more apparent. The main characters are ones that just want to be able to do their own thing and survive, yet for different reasons are prevented from doing so because of different power structures in place; be it corporatism, gang culture, or religion. Deon might come across as naïve, yet his goal of creating an AI is a worthy one, but is initially prevented by his boss (played by Sigourney Weaver) and then once successful a rival colleague, Vincent (played by a mullet donning Hugh Jackman), tries to remove Chappie with everything available to him. Vincent is not just a jealous co-worker, as he sees what he is doing as righteous, for he sees the notion of AI, and therefore Chappie, as ‘Godless’.
It feels apt that a film like CHAPPiE comes out at a similar time as Ex Machina, as both (aside from keeping Stephen Hawking awake at night) set out to prove that AI needn’t be our enemy. CHAPPiE takes this a step further and continually points towards humans as being the villains at fault in the world. Chappie is often the only voice of morality throughout the whole film, showing that morality can almost be a rational action.
CHAPPiE might not have the same spark as District 9, but is still a charming film in its own right. Chappie as a central character is one that you can care about, providing you are able to accept the gangster ways. CHAPPiE might not appear to tackle grand ideas like District 9, but it swaps this for subtly dealing with multiple ideas. This might be what has been off-putting for some, or not evident enough among the more action heavy approach. CHAPPiE is a film that should be seen, as it shows the struggles that can be faced in this world, regardless of who you are or where you came from. The Oscars nominations have an abundance of films about white men facing adversity, why not a South African robot?