Saturday, March 5, 2016

Chappie

It's the near future, (isn't it always?) and Johannesburg, South Africa is the first city to implement the use of robotics in law enforcement. The police bots are an instant and huge success, but their creator, Deon () is far from satisfied. He's working on an AI program that he hopes, when installed in a bot, will give it a consciousness, and make is just as human as anyone else. Deon's coworker, Vincent () also designed a police bot, but his was rejected, and he's dangerously envious.

Elsewhere there's an outlaw gang who owe an even scarier gangster a lot of money. In an attempt to get a police bot and program it to work for them, they end up kidnapping Deon and a decommissioned bot that he was sneaking away from the facility to test his AI on. He gives them the bot and installs the AI for them in exchange for some visiting privileges so he can run tests.

The result is Chappie.

Chappie () starts out a complete blank slate and as innocent as a baby, but he learns quickly. Deon wants to test his humanity; the gang's leader Ninja () wants to skip the growing up part and get him ready to fight for him; and Yo-Landi () quickly adopts a motherly role toward him. A lot of the film is spent in observing Chappie learn and develop under the influence of these three conflicting teachers. Chappie learns how to make art, how to be a cool gangster, what a promise is, and is read bedtime stories. And you can see so much of Copley behind the character; he moves like him and he sounds like him, and Copley gives a dynamic performance with vigor, portraying child-like naivete, genius smarts, and chill badassery all in due turn. No one does this kind of thing like Sharlto Copley.

And no one directs this kind of thing like Neill Blomkamp. This latest film effort from him feels more District 9 than Elysium, and that does it plenty of favors. Set back in the unique world of sci-fi J-burg again, boasting an intriguing premise, but backing it up with a more convincing heart than Elysium offered, Chappie feels less contrived and more just plain out of the ordinary world. There's no shortage of speculative AI films out there, but this one manages to find a new pathway to tread that I found surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining.

He's just a robot in photos, but on screen he comes alive just as well as a human character can.

I started with low expectations because of the bad rap this movie got. And I see why people may have been disappointed, because Chappie isn't really an action film like it seems to be -- or at least not nearly so much as you might expect. Besides bits and pieces, the movie only ever builds up to one big action sequence at the end, and otherwise spends a questionable amount of time in sentimentality-land. I didn't mind it personally -- I got drawn into the wonder of its themes which were, as wrong as they are in reality, undeniably compelling in fiction. The movie makes sense within itself and is fairly smart as well.

Then whenever we are given action it satisfies and makes up pretty well for anything lacking when Chappie was, say, playing with dolls. Chappie earns its R with confidence and unique style in the violence category (there's also a fair bit of language, and the helpful VidAngel cut out the "brief nudity" bit seamlessly). The movie's action is strikingly intense and its violent imagery makes quite an impact. Plus with the writing slowly building us up to the end, both in plot progression and in character, the slower beginning is forgivable because the movie knew where it wanted to go and got there the way it wanted to. And though you may well complain that it is sometimes silly and sentimental or awkwardly strange, it never fails to get its point across and has plenty of interesting things to say.

"Don't laugh, I'm being cool!" (The true reason I liked this movie: everything sounds better in a South African accent.)

I didn't fall in love with this one like I did District 9, but it certainly didn't leave me feeling disappointed and underwhelmed like Elysium did. I was there to be entertained by the winning Blomkamp and Copley duo, and I was, and got a little to think about afterwards as a bonus. My enjoyment varied and wobbled around a little, but ultimately I found the story involving, the characters neat and unique (and not just Chappie -- but mostly Chappie) and the storytelling stylish and memorable. Chappie is a conditionally winning robot-coming-of-age story.

2 comments:

  1. I admit to being reluctant to watch this one, mostly because of the R rating, even though my family does own a Clearplay. But I do like Dev Patel and you've made it sound intriguing, so I may see if my local library has it, which I'm sure they do.

    I did love Elysium, but I can see what you mean about it being a little bit contrived. I had no idea Chappie was done by the same director. So thanks for that little tidbit!

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    1. Yeah, I wouldn't have watched this without it being cut because of the nudity -- but language and violence-wise it's actually not quite as bad as Elysium. Dev Patel was so good in Slumdog Millionaire! And I liked him in this one too. If you loved Elysium I'd imagine you'd at least like Chappie too!

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