Release date: 6 March 2015
Running time: 120 min
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yo-Landi, Sigourney Weaver
All eyes are on Chappie director Neill Blomkamp after he announced that he will be helming a new Alien movie last month: an idea hatched whilst working with Sigourney Weaver in his latest sci-fi fairytale. Already overshadowed by this news, it now carries an unprecedented amount of expectation, with fans everywhere determined to forge an opinion before he even gets started on principal photography. Pitched as Robocop meets Short Circuit, Chappie is actually something far more idiosyncratic and strange. Part kids flick, part surreal comedy and part violent-actioner, it’s guaranteed to polarise audiences far more than his previous flick Elysium managed.
Set once again in Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg after taking us to Los Angeles for Elysium, Chappie is set in a quasi parallel-present whereby robot police scouts are used in place of officers; created and sold on by greedy private weapons companies. After police-scout creator Deon (Patel) decides to gift one of his inventions with artificial intelligence, his car is hijacked by desperate criminals and his creation is taken from him. While Deon tries his best to steer him in the right direction, Chappie (Copley) is taught to love and raise hell by his makeshift parents Yolandi and Ninja, as he goes from baby to teenager to computer genius over the course of just a few days.
Describing this as Robocop meets Short circuit neatly pinpoints one of Chappie‘s most jarring elements. By mixing adult themes with family friendly-fare, its middling 15 rating means it never appeals to one particular audience. Too sweary and violent for kids and too sweet and childish for adults, this falls somewhere in-between. It’s certainly tonally uneven, although maybe that’s the point. The presence of South African rap duo Die Antwoord, who star as themselves (sort of) in the role of criminal parents Yolandi and Ninja, is perhaps the key to understanding its quirks. Their playful lyrics and persona, infused with satire and deliberate silliness bring a certain flavour to Chappie which will no doubt prove too bizarre for some.
There is a lot to like here though. Chappie himself has been unfairly described by some as a robotic Jar Jar Binks, but is far more lovable and multi-layered than George Lucas’ CGI monstrosity. Kudos goes to Copley for imbuing the title character with an adorable innocence that anchors the material even when it occasionally veers off course. Hugh Jackman’s boorish Aussie Catholic zealot is also a hilarious highlight, his alpha male bravado barely hiding his pet-lip over his vulgar ED-209 robot playing second fiddle to Deon’s police scouts. The appearance of Die Antwoord is perhaps what will make or break Chappie for some, but they undoubtedly look the part, appearing as if they have stepped straight off the set of a hip-hop Blade Runner.
As with all of Blomkamp’s efforts, the effects are -for the most part- incredibly impressive; the flashiness of new technology is mirrored by the decrepit beauty of urban decay. It is within this maze of concrete and rubble that we find our heroes, once again grounding his story by incorporating society’s underclass; the forgotten and the poor get their day to shine. Whether he will add anything remarkable to Ellen Ripley’s increasingly lacklustre adventures remains to be seen, but for now he still remains a refreshingly un-American voice in an increasingly intolerable Hollywood. Chappie is far from perfect, but it has enough charm and ingenuity to appeal if it can find its audience.