After the out-of-nowhere sucker punch of his 2009 debut ‘District 9’, Neill Blomkamp’s second film, 2013’s ‘Elysium’, felt like the work of a Hollywood-designed, blockbuster-producing robot: slick and anonymous. So it’s a huge relief to discover that, with ‘Chappie’, the South African filmmaker has re-engaged his emotion chip and ramped up the weirdness factor for this lovably scattergun cybernetic satire. We’re in near-future Johannesburg, where a platoon of faceless android crimefighters have begun the mammoth task of cleaning up the streets. But their inventor (Dev Patel) has greater ambitions: he’s working on the world’s first true artificial intelligence, a computer that can not only think, but create.
The result is Chappie, a creature with the body of a killer but the mind of a child. And when Chappie falls into the hands of wannabe gangsters Ninja and Yolandi – played, roughly as themselves, by Afrikaans electroclash duo Die Antwoord – his future is thrown wide open. Will he become a benefit to humanity? Or a menace to society? It would have been easy for Blomkamp to use Chappie as a cipher, a metal shell to be filled with symbolic notions of nature versus nurture, corporate greed and post-human existential angst. But thanks to a wonderful vocal performance from Sharlto Copley, this droid is so much more: he’s adorable, sympathetic and even relatable, a lost soul in a harsh world.
‘Chappie’ the film isn’t so perfect. The plot is threadbare, the nods to ‘RoboCop’ are laid on thick and it’s hard to overlook the fact that Blomkamp has made another Jo’burg-based movie strangely lacking in black characters. But with its stunning urban landscapes, trash-talking titanium hero and mulleted, God-bothering bad guy (Hugh Jackman, never better), this hugely entertaining oddity could never be mistaken for the work of any other filmmaker.