The best reason to see Chappie is the title character. He’s a titanium-skinned police android who must learn to negotiate the real world after he’s given the gift of artificial consciousness by his creator. Voiced by District 9 star Sharlto Copley as an ungainly but adorable blend of E.T., Ice-T, C-3PO and F.W. DeKlerk, he’s set to join the likes of Gollum as one of the most memorable and empathy-inducing computer-generated characters in the movies.
We’re used to seeing CG characters blending seamlessly into their environments, but that technique has rarely been as beautifully employed as it is here. With his gleaming reflective surfaces, physical interactions with fellow actors and wonderfully liquid, convincing movements, Chappie feels completely of a piece with the world around him. And there are some fantastic explosions, too.
Yep, the erstwhile Wolverine doesn’t just play the villain here, he does so in a shaggy-top, long-back hairdo that’d make Linda McCartney proud (he also wears socks with sandals, just to ram the point home that this guy is a real dick). It’s great, too, to hear Jackman using his own Aussie accent—and some particularly fruity homegrown slang—rather than the put-on American burr we’ve grown accustomed to.
Neill Blomkamp seems to be on a one-man mission to reclaim the Afrikaans accent—well, sort of. For decades associated with racial prejudice and political violence, Blomkamp has rediscovered the comic potential inherent in this most distinct of dialects, and he uses it to its full spit-flying, curse-hurling potential in Chappie (one character even drives a car with the vanity plate “FOKOFF”).
We’ve known for a while that the members of berserk, confrontational Afrikaans electro-hip-hop duo Die Antwoord were going to have parts in Chappie, but we didn’t know they’d be joining Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman in the lead roles. Essentially appearing as extreme versions of themselves, Ninja and Yolandi are a weirdly perfect fit for Blomkamp’s oddball vision.
It's safe to say that the political establishment (not to mention the tourist board) of South Africa’s largest city are not going to be thrilled with Chappie. Blomkamp does manage to make this remarkable, sprawling city look incredibly beautiful—but only in a devastated, litter-strewn apocalyptic kind of way.
Any movie about artificial intelligence comes in-built with questions about existence, identity and the future of humanity. But Chappie doesn’t stop there, digging into notions of nature versus nurture and the bonds between the spirit and the flesh, as well as sci-fi staples like corporate greed and the privatization of power. We’re not saying Chappie digs particularly deep into these issues—this is still a popcorn movie, after all—but they give the film a welcome sense of weight.
With its moments of broad slapstick and Spielbergian sweetness, Chappie is clearly aimed at a wider audience than District 9. So don’t go expecting the same level of graphic gore (one moment of flesh-ripping nastiness aside). But when the bullets, knives, fists and rockets do start flying, Blomkamp proves that he still knows his way around a bone-crunching action sequence.
After Elysium, many suspected that District 9 was just a one-off, and that Blomkamp would end up becoming just another Hollywood director-for-hire, knocking out spectacular but empty blockbusters. But Chappie proves that Blomkamp is committed to his own vision: Love it or loathe it, there’s no way this could’ve been made by anyone else.
It was announced last week that Blomkamp has been given the go-ahead by 20th Century Fox (and, perhaps more importantly, by Chappie co-star Sigourney Weaver) to move ahead with his vision for a new Alien movie. The franchise has spelled trouble for some very fine directors in the past—David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet among them. But if Blomkamp can hang on to his unique vision and not get backed into an Elysium-style blockbuster corner, we think the result could be something very special indeed.