Chappie (dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2015) – Stolen police droid Chappie, upon reprogramming, begins to develop his own abilities to think and feel.
Fantasy-adventure Chappie lends its armoured lead a heart and proves revelatory of human nature, although a heavy-handed delivery mars its ideas.
A scrapyard of lawlessness and poverty sets the scene of Neill Blomkamp’s mind palace, where features of habit put forth a familiarly bleak future. With such echoes of his acclaimed prawn-duelling debut, there comes certain expectations of refined social commentary for his follow-ups.
Yet to compare his latest work to District 9, or even Elysium, would be a mistake. Complex concepts of free will and artificial intelligence mostly recede to playing second fiddle in this unique composition of a sentient robot’s fairytale.
With only the slightest sprinkle of science fiction, Chappie is a much lighter concoction of fantasia and comedy, sharing closer proximity to a R-rated Wall-E than social critiques à la Children of Men. This is a machine’s wild adventure, a robot’s fantasy tale. We can even call it a coming-of-age story, maligned by misleading preconceptions.
Like Robocop, the titular bot is much more capable of eliciting empathy than his metal casing would have you believe. Upon developing self-awareness, Chappie (Sharlto Copley) emulates a human newborn, raised on varying ideas of nurture.
Much like ring-bearing hobbits and muggles-turned-wizards, he finds his own rites of passage. That, for where he was born, is fending off gangs or being tricked into carjacking.
Through the ones he meet, he begins to define humanity as he does himself. For every person that treats him as a child, there is another looking to use him as a military weapon. Even with revere from his creator Deon (Dev Patel), it comes with the implication of being seen as a lifeless object and an inanimate scientific achievement.
Though based off one-dimensional archetypes, vibrant characters exemplify motives of Man when it comes to machines. Or any species we tend to consider inferior or obeisant at all.
Accidental foster parents Ninja and Yo-Landi (Die Antwoord as themselves), for instance, exhibit contrasting views of their respective inclination towards war and peace. The resultant myth is surprisingly revelatory of human nature.
Yet the script is indicative of the film’s unsubtle approach. While writers Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell clearly had good ideas, an excellent cast suffers expository dialogue and for some, severe underuse.
There however remains an effective draw for the dystopian fable in its memorably crafted leads. Die Antwoord, less of a band than self-aware characters, seems entirely comfortable in retaining their off-beat personalities on screen. This largely contributed to the good humour of the lovable Chappie.
Visually, its loud and over-the-top approach makes for another easy case to dismiss this film as another Bay-esque blockbuster. But like a full-length Zef Film, this peculiar story somehow works out the tough challenge in injecting genuine fun into a dark future world.
What better fun than to watch a robot scream some mangled expletives? Borne of an eclectic mix between foster parenting and gangster culture, Chappie could just be the decent alternative droid you are looking for.