More human than human — ‘Chappie’
“Chappie” is absolutely everything I want to see in a science-fiction movie. It’s thick with ideas, its twists and turns fast and furious by the end of its two hours.
Let me preface this: I am not a fan of either of Neil Blomkamp’s previous films. “District 9” was interesting, but still had too many holes to sort out by the time its credits rolled. “Elysium” was promising but crashed and burned in its second half. Both films were chock full of great ideas ruined by mediocre execution.
Blomkamp knew this, too, even going so far as to apologize to fans for “Elysium.” So he went back to the drawing board and stuck closer to home with “Chappie.”
To recount its plot too deeply would be to reveal any number of twists on its Dickensian orphan formula. Essentially, police in South Africa have begun to use man-sized robots to quell crime. They fight, they shoot, they act as mobile shields. One such robot takes a few extra risks protecting those around him, becomes too badly damaged, and ends up in the trash heap. Its developer, Deon (Dev Patel), begs his boss to study it, but the company doesn’t want to risk artificial consciousness.
Meanwhile, a group of down-on-their-luck gangsters plan to pull off a major heist. They just need to kidnap Deon to get him to turn the police robots off. Deon kidnaps the robot he wants to study, the gangsters kidnap Deon, and one of cinema’s most intriguing alternative families is born.
The robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), is like a child. The gangsters consist of a father, a mother, their compatriot Amerika, and have a difficult relationship with Deon -- the Maker. Each pulls Chappie in different directions -- his mother teaches him compassion and self-confidence, his father sabotages that confidence to toughen Chappie up and make him useful, his maker teaches him right from wrong. Chappie can’t make sense of it all, and eventually feels betrayed by and lost from each of these lights in his life.
If it’s starting to sound like something of a faith-based movie, you wouldn’t be wrong. If Chappie were a little boy questioning God instead of a robot questioning his designer, this would be drawing faith-based crowds in droves. The allegory at play is much the same, which brings us to the film’s Satan -- a competing robot designer named Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who will stop at nothing to sabotage Deon’s success and destroy Chappie. Jackman is utterly brilliant in the role, using that burning intensity we cheer on in his other performances to create someone who’s inconsolably angry at not measuring up.
This is a film about being confused and tugged into all sorts of moral confusions and compromises upon being gifted into the world. Chappie makes mistakes, some of them horrible. We root for him, but we’re also rooting for his understanding of the world and his uniquely personal sense of faith. We want Chappie to live, but more than that -- we want him to get the chance to live on his own terms. That’s the crux of the film’s drama. We’re worried for Chappie, sure, but we’re much more worried for who he’ll turn out to be.
“Chappie” is a crazy movie -- the gangsters are played by South African rap artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (often wearing their band Die Antwoord’s T-shirts), its blistering action is a major step up from what Blomkamp’s delivered before, and its audacious last 10 minutes is the stuff of sci-fi legend. It’s all anchored by how we feel about Chappie, how much we need to see Chappie succeed because, to be honest, he isn’t just a robot. He’s each of our failures, our confusions, our indecisions and insecurities up on that screen. By teaching a robot how to be human and what to value, we get a stark look at our own lives and values.
More than anything else, Chappie offers us the chance to look at where we are as humans -- and it’s not always a pretty picture we see staring back at us. The movie takes place in a postapocalyptic future wasteland -- 2016 looking just like 2015 -- and suggests that our worst sci-fi visions of societal failure already exist for many in the world.
Four stars out of four. This is a superb science-fiction allegory. “Chappie” is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity. It’s not appropriate for young children.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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