The loneliness of a sentient robot in the South African ghetto

Also opening this week:

• The Lazarus Effect



Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Miranda Frigon, Robert Hobbs, Kevin Otto, Watkin Tudor Jones. Written by Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell.

The technological breakthrough of a sentient robot that can think and feel emotions is upstaged by the ghetto antics of South African rap duo Die Antwoord in Chappie, the latest piece of thoughtful science fiction filmmaking from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp.

But while Chappie is more thoughtful than your average action blockbuster, is isn’t quite as sharp as Blompkamp’s debut, which served as a parable for racial tension in South Africa, or his second film, Elysium, which targeted US class equality and healthcare. 

Chappie, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have a social issue at heart; it’s more concerned with exploring themes of human evolution and artificial intelligence, similar to ground that was covered in last year’s Transcendence (and before that, in Prometheus). 

Blomkamp, however, approaches the subject with a little more grace and humor. It’s fittingly ironic that this wondrous creation winds up in the hands of Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser), making their film debut as a pair of obnoxious, trashy ghetto thugs who adopt the titular robot and teach it some bad manners along the way.

Die Antwoord’s music dots the soundtrack, accompanying a prototypical Hans Zimmer bass-heavy original score, and their over-the-top presence throughout dominates the film. They even overshadow even the robot. Your enjoyment of the movie hinges on your tolerance for the duo.

As others have pointed out, Chappie is Short Circuit meets RoboCop: in a not-so-distant future (but not too distant, given the presence of PS4s courtesy of production studio Sony), Johannesburg is patrolled by a police force that includes mechanized droids that assist humans in fighting crime.

The wunderkind behind the police droids is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), an inventor working for weapons manufacturer Tetravaal. But while Deon is the star of his company, he has a bigger project that keeps him up at night: developing artificial intelligence that can think and feel and “write poetry”, an idea that is quickly shot down by boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, in a completely thankless role). 

Yes, Deon has made one of the biggest technological leaps in history, only to be dismissed by the usual corporate drone. And what exactly does he need Tetravaal for, anyway? He puts the A.I. in a discarded police drone, but surely he could have put it in any device – like the vacuum cleaner that serves him Red Bull at home. But I suppose a movie about a super-intelligent, sentient vacuum cleaner wouldn’t be quite as exciting. 

More problems surface in the character of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a colleague who resents Deon’s success. Jackman’s character is working on MOOSE – a hulking piece of weaponized overkill that owes a little too much to Phil Tippet’s ED-209 from RoboCop – and gets a little aggravated when the local P.D. favors Deon’s stealthy humanoid drones. 

(Why are they trying to sell this beast to local cops, anyway? In RoboCop, ED-209 was used as satire; here, we’re wondering how this thing got made in the first place, and why they don’t take it to the military.)

Vincent is the movie’s lone credible threat (there’s also gang leader Hippo, played by Brandon Auret, who somehow manages to go even further over-the-top than Die Antwoord), but he’d be a little more intimidating without the mullet and polo shirt tucked into his shorts. 

And then there’s Chappie, who’s almost lost in a sea of wild ideas, plot threads, and colorful performances. He’s voiced and played through motion capture by Sharlto Copley and brought to life through some incredibly real-feeling CGI. This was a relatively inexpensive production at under $50 million, but the CGI here is far more convincing than anything seen in the Transformers series. 

And the robot is the real heart of the film. For everything that doesn’t quite hit the mark in Chappie, there are the scenes of titular character “growing up” (he needs to learn about the world like a child would, for reasons that are wisely left unexplained) with mommy and daddy Yolandi and Ninja that are unexpectedly touching in their own off-kilter way.

Chappie might not be perfect – it tends to drag in the mid-section, with a decided lack of action (which is a shame, because Blomkamp is an expert at staging action) – but it’s weird and wild and repackages a lot of familiar sci-fi elements in an eccentric new package. And it even manages to make us care about the Die Antwoord characters, which is no small feat.

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