Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
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After the misfire of his Hollywood sci-fi sophomore picture, Elysium, South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp returns to his District 9 roots for Chappie, an enjoyable sentient robot adventure that’s pitched at the mid-way point between RoboCop and Short Circuit, with a touch of A.I. thrown in for good measure.
Set in a near-future Johannesburg, where a squad of robot cops have successfully lowered the crime rate, Chappie stars Dev Patel as Deon, the robots’ young inventor, who has come up with an A.I. patch that will allow them to think, feel and even create. However, his no-nonsense boss, Michelle Bradley (an under-used Sigourney Weaver), points out that droids with artistic sides won’t be much use as gun-toting soldier-bots, so he steals a busted-up bot that was destined for the scrap heap, with the intention of installing his chip.
However, things quickly go wrong. Deon is kidnapped by a trio of criminals (Die Antwoord duo Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, plus Jose Pablo Cantillo as Amerika), who plan to force him to turn off the crime-fighting robots. Bartering for his life, Deon persuades them to let him install the chip, telling them that the robot will be like a child and they can train it to work for them. Yo-Landi quickly christens the robot (voiced and mo-capped by Sharlto Copley) “Chappie” and they set about teaching it how to swagger, swear and shoot guns. Meanwhile, Deon’s jealous work rival, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), has his own plans for Deon’s tech and attempts to kidnap Chappie.
Copley’s performance is extremely impressive, both physically and vocally, and the subtle changes from Chappie behaving like an infant, then a curious child, then a sulky teenager are nicely handled. Ninja and Yo-Landi aren’t skilled actors, but they bring an off-kilter energy to their roles that adds an intriguing layer of unpredictability, while Patel delivers his best performance since Slumdog Millionaire. However, the film is very nearly stolen by Jackman, clearly relishing the chance to play the villain for once and sporting a hilarious mullet and a pair of truly terrible shorts, as well as a hefty dose of angry, Australian attitude.
It’s fair to say that the script is uneven, with certain characters off-screen for too long and a couple of events that don’t really make narrative sense (e.g. Ninja abandoning Chappie in enemy territory to force him to fend for himself), but Blomkamp nonetheless strikes an appealing balance of comedy, thriller, science-fiction and robo-coming-of-age drama. It’s also surprisingly emotional in places, with some unexpectedly powerful scenes – there’s a moment when Chappie is in trouble, where you suddenly realise that you’ve completely bought into the idea that robots can feel pain, such is the gets-under-your-skin nature of Copley’s performance.
Chappie is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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