The existence of something like Chappie in modern-day Hollywood deserves to be properly feted. South African director Neill Blomkamp may have the backing of one of the major studios and the blessing of big-shot directors, but he still shoots back home in South Africa with all of his local creative crew and weaves his distinctly local view into his films.
Hence, Chappie is set in a near-future, crime-ridden, dysfunctional Johannesburg where robotics company Tetravaal makes a killing offering an all-purpose humanoid android for police work. This is the first, and the first ominous, sign that Mr. Blomkamp's third feature will mostly be rehashing District 9 and Elysium (itself already a notch below its predecessor) in a more diluted, less inspired fashion. But his interest for the new film lies elsewhere: Chappie is about artificial intelligence.
The title character, a CGI creation superimposed over the physical performance of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, is a sentient robot prototype; Tetravaal's star scientist Deon Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) modified one of the totalled police models with an artificial intelligence module he developed in his spare time. It's a fascinating premise that follows the "growing pains" of the experiment through a series of openly melodramatic, and occasionally hackneyed, plot devices: just as he is on the verge of success, Deon is kidnapped by a trio of small time thugs in dire need of fast cash to pay a debt, is forced to leave his creation with them just when it's taking its first baby steps, and is being stalked by a competing Tetravaal scientist and former special forces man (a rare villainous turn for Hugh Jackman) resenting Deon's success over the failure of his military-styled robot.
The thought experiment ends up imprisoned inside a clumsy remake of Alex Proyas' superior AI-themed I, Robot, its Frankenstein-meets-Robocop mash-up suffering from too many script-writing holes and a serious imbalance between its sleek action sequences and the rather predictable and somewhat heavy-handed emotional content. Chappie isn't helped by the fact that the emotion has to be carried by less experienced actors - Mr. Patel and South African pop group Die Antwoord's skronky singers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (playing essentially alternate versions of themselves).
Yet, the film works and keeps you on the edge of the seat - it's a tribute to Mr. Blomkamp's forceful handling, his bracingly smart "what ifs" bouncing off a series of rather striking visual devices and pop culture references that, for better or worse, reflect a worldview that doesn't come from the relative comfort of the Western civilization. It's that sense that you're watching something articulated in a different way, a film that's not afraid of wrapping up big ideas in the simple formatting of a blockbuster, that stops me from slotting Chappie in the "diminishing returns from a promising young director" category.
Cast Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), Yo-Landi Visser (Anri du Toit), José Pablo Canillo, Brandon Auret, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman
Director Neill Blomkamp; screenwriters Mr. Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; cinematographer Trent Opaloch (colour, widescreen); composer Hans Zimmer; designer Jules Cook; costumes Diana Cilliers; editors Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt; effects supervisor Chris Harvey; producers Mr. Blomkamp and Simon Kinberg; production companies Columbia Pictures, MRC II Distribution Company and Kinberg Genre Productions in association with Lstar Capital
Screened February 25th 2015, NOS Colombo 8, Lisbon (distributor press screening)