Neil Blomkamp is quickly becoming Hollywood’s hottest new sci-fi film director; only 3 films in and he’s already firmly established his own unique and distinctive movie style with his gritty, realistic/imaginative tech and CGI effects as displayed in “Elysium” and his first (and still greatest) film to date; “District 9.” Now Blomkamp releases his third film, still using the same actors and tricks but molding it in a very different shell that both familiar and foreign at the same time; entitled “Chappie.” In yet another look into humanity’s increasingly bleak future, a robotics company has successfully created the perfect police enforcement robot to handle and nullify all forms of combat and crime; called “Scouts.” The scout’s creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) however wants to expand the robots capacity for intelligence and secretly creates a thinking/feeling/living robot nicknamed Chappie (Sharlto Copley).
Unfortunately a gang of criminals hijacks Deon and Chappie and want to “educate” the robot to pull a heist for them in order to pay off a drug lord. Meanwhile, rival robotics/weapons specialist Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) fears the threat of artificial intelligence and spearheads a campaign to destroy Chappie and all the scout robots; threatening Chappie’s new life and everyone near and dear to him. The best way I could describe this movie is that it feels like an odd mixture of “Robocop,” “Short Circuit” with a little bit of “Transcendence” thrown in at the very end. None of these are bad implications towards the film’s quality or credit but it does give you a sense of just how this film seems very familiar but just different enough to be unique.
The commercials and advertisements make this seem like a revolutionary robot’s coming of age story, even mistaking you in thinking Devon is the star or that Chappie is built for some greater purpose. In truth, Chappie himself is the star and the film constantly flips from the hijacking gang influencing him as surrel surrogate parents, to Devon influencing him and deter him from the destructive and criminal path that everyone seems to want for his beloved creation. It’s very interesting to see Blomkamp cast mostly unknowns to lead this film, while bigger names like Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver fill secondary roles. This tale of a machine with a soul fails to break any ground but it tries taking a different direction down the same path; following the most unlikely (and originally) likeable of leads, the gang I mean and escalating Chappie’s journey into deeper and more complicated territory.
One thing that certainly doesn’t feel like it was copied from another film is the unique look to this world: the gang’s clothes, tattoos, weaponry, the robots, even a mechanic’s tools or a TV set up scream imagination. “Chappie” may be set in the same long labored favorite location of the director (Johannesburg) but focuses more on Chappie’s desire for discovery than the usual oppressive conditions of the surroundings like in his previous films. While I can’t agree 100% that putting unknowns in front of grander talents like Jackman or Weaver, there’s no soul better suited to play a sympathetic robot than Sharlto Copley. He’s likeable, lovable even and his desire to learn and grow like a lanky, robotic child make him enjoyable to observe in every aspect.
I can easily see however why many people would simply look at this film and see nothing but rip offs and copy/paste jobs of previous films (like the 3 I mentioned at the beginning). I also know however that being original these days is a near impossible task to accomplish, and those that do try something original rarely get the support they need. “Chappie” isn’t the MOST original film by any means but that didn’t deter me from genuinely enjoying and appreciating the unusual approaches accomplished here. Copley is perfectly cast here, Jackman and Patel successfully make use of their screen time and with all the flaws and problems well acknowledged, I still say “Chappie” is more win than lose for this up and coming director.