MOVIE REVIEW: CHAPPiE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: NEILL BLOMKAMP / SCREENPLAY: NEILL BLOMKAMP, TERRI TATCHELL / STARRING: SHARLTO COPLEY, DEV PATEL, HUGH JACKMAN, NINJA, ¥O-LANDI / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 6TH
After a detour to Los Angeles 2154 for Elysium, Neill Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg to tell the story of Die Antwoord, a South African band of rappers/criminals who manage to get their hands on a sentient robot, in order to pull off a heist and save themselves from a local gang lord. Seriously, the South African rap-rave group members NINJA and ¥O-LANDI, playing versions of their own on-stage personas, are on-screen as much, if not more, than the titular CHAPPiE, who gains sentience through a slightly contrived series of circumstances.
Once CHAPPiE does gain sentience, he starts to learn about the world around him, and soon becomes torn between the criminal aspirations of his "daddy", NINJA, the more nurturing inclinations of his "mummy", ¥O-LANDI, and the dreams of his absentee maker, Deon (Dev Patel). Time is short, though, as NINJA & ¥O-LANDI have a tight deadline to pay off a serious debt and one of Deon's obsessed colleagues, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), has been sniffing around. If word about CHAPPiE gets out, it will cause problems for everyone.
Needless to say, a clash does occur in the third act, and the action scenes are some of the best scenes in the film, Blomkamp having lost none of his skill staging action, but these are joined by enjoyable scenes of CHAPPiE learning, mimicking NINJA's rap gangster mannerisms while acting more like a child around ¥O-LANDI. Apparently, Sharlto Copley performed the title role in the same manner Andy Serkis did for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, acting on-set with the other actors and then being digitally painted over later, and the work here is seamless.
The real star of the show, though, is NINJA. Despite his cartoonish appearance and gangster attitude, he has some of the most difficult parts of the film, incurring the audience's loathing for tricking CHAPPiE into doing things he clearly doesn't want to, even abusing him sometimes, but then managing to inspire sympathy later in the film.
Once the focus moves beyond the central trinity, things get bit more troublesome. Hugh Jackman's Vincent Moore is a cartoonish psychopath from the off, lurking menacingly in his office cubicle in his short shorts with a gun at his side. Sigourney Weaver's role has gained much attention thanks to Blomkamp's recently announced Alien movie, but she gets very little to do here, easily manipulating Patel's Deon only to be just as easily manipulated by Jackman later on. Considering Blomkamp's recent comments on the script and story problems with Elysium, it's strange that similar criticisms can be levelled here. There's no real examination of what AI really is – Deon just creates it after a particularly long Red Bull-fuelled coding session – and the circumstances that lead to CHAPPiE's creation rely on a number of coincidences that feel manufactured.
When the film hits its stride these issues fall away and those heartfelt and touching moments are contrasted nicely with the massive ultra-violence once Moore's remote-piloted weapon platform is released. "The Moose" is Moore's obsession, a distant cousin to Robocop's ED-209 and one that has all the kinks worked out – like how to handle stairs (answer: fly!)
Near the end, the film takes a hard right turn narratively, delving into a very quick examination of the nature of consciousness before heading off into what could be a prelude to the singularity. It's unexpected, but doesn't feel out of place in this wildly uneven yet enjoyable film.
Blomkamp still hasn't quite reached the heights he scaled in his first film District 9, but CHAPPiE quite happily sits alongside it and shows he is still a director with a very unique visual sense. Perhaps the next Alien film will prove to be his masterpiece.
Take one point off the rating if major plot points built around coincidences annoy you, and another if you had trouble understanding the South African accents in District 9.
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10