March 12, 2015 Leave a comment
Having designed law-enforcement drones for Tetravaal, a weapons manufacturer based in Johannesburg, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has subsequently turned his attention to artificial intelligence, despite CEO Michelle Bradley’s (Sigourney Weaver) insistence that her company isn’t interested. Before he can install his prototype programme into a damaged robot, however, Deon is kidnapped by gangsters Ninja (as himself), Yolandi (as herself) and America (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who want to use the drone for one last heist in order to pay off crime lord Hippo (Brandon Auret) — leaving him with no option but to activate the A.I. and leave it in their hands. While Ninja and Yolandi raise CHAPPiE (Sharlto Copley) as their own, Deon returns to Tetravaal to find rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) — whose own creation, MOOSE, has been deemed too heavy-duty for the police force — has declared war on CHAPPiE.
Whichever way you look at it, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was something of an empty promise. For some, it set a standard that the director’s later films have yet to live up to; for others, District 9 itself felt like little more than a show-reel designed to impress rather than entertain. Whatever criticism you throw at his sophomore project — Matt Damon vehicle Elysium — however, it feels much more like a movie in its own right. CHAPPiE again feels like the natural progression for a filmmaker still developing his style, and while it too is not without its flaws there is a comprehensiveness to it that District 9 arguably lacks. CHAPPiE is impressive for all of the reasons Blomkamp’s previous efforts are impressive, but for really the first time the story and characters match up with the aesthetics and themes.
CHAPPiE itself/himself is a marvel, both beautifully realised and vividly performed. Having previously played anti-heroes and straight-up villains, it’s refreshing to see Copley given something ever so slightly lighter to play. Like the best movie robots CHAPPiE is relatively crude and uncomplicated on the outside (a tool, rather than a Transformer), but incredibly complex on the inside. Given basic moral parameters by Deon under pressure — do not kill; do not steal — CHAPPiE is then raised by dayglow gangsters who try to manipulate him into doing just that, first by lying to him and then by making him question his creator’s authority. If Deon indeed loves him, why did he give CHAPPiE a damaged body with limited battery life? It is thanks to CHAPPiE that the film dodges unflattering comparisons to RoboCop or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with which it shares a great deal in terms of themes and plot; Copley’s motion-capture performance has its own distinctive personality — from the actor’s telltale accent to the character’s muddled expletives.
Although named after the aforementioned robot, CHAPPiE is effectively an ensemble film — though admittedly an ensemble film that is greater than the sum of its parts. Patel, Jackman and Cantillo are by no means the best actors in the world, while Ninja and Yolandi aren’t even actors, but they are undeniably characters. Blomkamp makes full use of his multinational cast, including an inevitable cameo from genre staple and resident American Weaver, who has marginally more to do here than in The Cabin in the Woods or Paul, and while their individual performances might not always convince their relationships still manage to be compelling. As interesting as the film’s discussions of artificial intelligence are, evoking immediate comparisons to the likes of Ex_Machina, it’s the scenes exploring the quasi-familial bonds the machine eventually develops that are the most fascinating — from Deon fretting about bad influences to Ninja and Yolandi slowly adjusting to their roles as surrogate parents, CHAPPiE both moulds and is moulded by those he comes into contact with.
Funnier and more emotional than either District 9 or Elysium, CHAPPiE is Blomkamp’s most engaging film to date. It is also the director’s most ambitious, and though the ideas and plot mechanics don’t always sit together cohesively what matters is that the solutions Blomkamp finds are always creative. Having now tackled extra-terrestrials, future politics and artificial intelligence, Blomkamp couldn’t be more ready to embark on Alien 5.