Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
Neill Blomkamp has returned to helm another intriguing sci-fi adventure that touches upon issues of morality and persecution. Like District 9 before it, Chappie expands upon the basic concept of a short film that the director put together earlier in his career. Fleshing the story out for the big screen, he manages to craft a movie that remains gripping and thought-provoking throughout.
The plot picks up in a world where the police have been largely replaced by an effective force of robotic drones. When their creator, Deon Wilson, makes a miraculous scientific breakthrough that gives birth to the first truly sentient artificial intelligence, not even he is prepared for how quickly it develops. However, there are those who wish to use the new being for their own nefarious purposes and yet more sinister individuals who wish to see it destroyed. As he struggles to protect his creation from corruption and harm, Wilson soon learns that the implications of his actions are much more profound than he ever could have imagined.
While the narrative is extremely convoluted – due mostly to the fact that there are so many opposing characters at play – it avoids feeling too overloaded. This is owed to the mechanical protagonist himself. Brought to life seamlessly through the motion capture performance and vocal talent of Blomkamp mainstay Sharlto Copley, Chappie binds the plot together by acting as both its subject and its driving force. All of the major organic players represent a different facet of humanity and it’s fascinating to observe the contrasting effects that Chappie has on each of them over the course of the story.
From awakening nobility in otherwise unconscionable individuals to inciting the fear and disdain of financially driven antagonists, Deon’s AI serves as the unwitting catalyst for an enthralling sociological study. Arguably, it’s outlaw couple Ninja and Yolandi who are most affected by Chappie and who undergo the greatest amount of character development outside of the robot himself.
Despite living a life of crime and deviancy, Yolandi takes it upon herself to act as Chappie’s mother, giving him his first experience of what’s it’s like to feel love and attachment. It becomes a pivotal aspect of the plot as it develops and adds a great deal of heart and emotion to the proceedings. It also means that Ninja takes on the de facto position of Chappie’s father; a role which he initially exploits for his own selfish purposes.
The influence that Ninja and Yolandi exert over Chappie addresses topics of nature versus nurture and morality in very interesting ways. Chappie is no different to an impressionable child, learning about the world through his parents’ outlook. He knows nothing of right and wrong other than what he has been told and ends up participating in a series of misdeeds with the best of intentions. It makes for some scenes that are equal parts amusing and disturbing.
In a similar manner, there are also many ethical questions raised by the premise. One of these is the debate as to whether or not “artificial” is a fair definition of the robot’s consciousness. As far as Chappie is concerned, he is real. He has a mind, he has thoughts and feelings and drives and desires. So does he have less of a right to exist than anyone else simply because he is not encased in an organic shell? This is a complex issue that Blomkamp dwells on extensively.
It’s made all the more engaging by just how well the script succeeds in making Chappie a sympathetic protagonist. Like the rest of Earth’s population, he simply wants to exist. He wants to live a normal life and be happy and cannot understand why there would be any objection or adversity to his doing so. Copley really manages to channel the full extent of Chappie’s highs and lows, making for compelling viewing and some truly heartrending moments. Above all else, we are made to care about this character. And while he incurs the adoration of Deon and inspires the best in some otherwise unscrupulous people, there are those that see the nature of his existence as threatening and abominable.
The main proponent of these sentiments is Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, who bears a grudge for Deon’s design having been picked over his to act as the law enforcement drone of choice. Jackman seems to revel in playing the bad guy for a change, putting in an admirably maniacal turn as the disgruntled engineer. However, while there’s nothing wrong with the veteran actor’s performance, Moore’s motivations do end up becoming a little murky. It’s clear as to why he has a vendetta against Deon, but it’s not as apparent as to where the roots of his sociopathic tendencies lie when it comes to how he deals with human characters who stand in his way.
Signing off on Moore’s plans is Sigourney Weaver’s Michelle Brady, the CEO of the company for which he and Deon work. Weaver does well with what she’s given, acting as a business woman concerned only with how machines can help or hinder her profits. Unfortunately though, despite being played by a Hollywood A-lister, Brady isn’t given a lot of screen time or development, ultimately serving as more of a plot device than anything else.
While the most engaging aspects of the narrative are the philosophical arguments brought to the table, Chappie also features some pulse pounding action sequences. The movie maintains a swift momentum, rarely exhibiting a dull moment. This generates a considerable amount of tension and suspense during its visually stunning set pieces. The special effects on show are amazingly rendered, particularly when it comes to the titular character. So flawless is the motion capture work that brings Chappie to life that it is easy to forget it’s not an actual robot performing.
Neill Blomkamp’s latest undertaking certainly has quite a bit going on in it. As a result, it could be argued that it becomes a little bloated at times. However, all of its disparate elements are drawn together by its central protagonist who acts as a constant anchor for the plot. Fast paced and action packed, Chappie is wrought with drama and emotion that keeps it truly absorbing and consistenty entertaining. This movie is not simply a mindless sci-fi spectacle, it is a cerebral allegory that provokes both thought and contemplation.
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