Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Chappie

Mostly reviled by mainstream reviewers, Neill Blomkamp's third feature-length film turns out to be a charming picaresque story of a robot's coming-of-age. Set, like Blomkamp's District 9, in a near-future Johannesburg, the film starts out as a RoboCop homage, with an army of police robots tackling a crime wave in a by-the-numbers meathook urban dystopia. When a couple of hapless gangsters (Yo-Landi and Ninja, played by Die Antwoord rappers Yolandi and Ninja) fall foul of their terrifying boss, they have to come up with an impossibly huge amount of cash.  Their brilliantly stupid plan is to steal one of the robots and kidnap their designer, and use them to rob a bank. In a parallel story, the designer, Dev (Deon Wilson), has been attempting to develop a true AI; stymied by his boss, he has just stolen a damaged robot to experiment on when he's kidnapped by the gangsters.

So far, so B-movie, but the film kicks up a notch after the stolen robot, Chappie, is animated by Dev's AI program, rapidly develops from childhood through strutting rap gangster adolescence to adulthood, and tries to reconcile the opposing moral frameworks of his gangster parents and his creator. Yolandi and Ninja play Chappie's surrogate parents with broad but credible strokes; Hugh Jackman is a somewhat cartoonish embittered alpha male who plots to supplant Dev's robots with his own creation; Sigourney Weaver doesn't have enough to do as their boss. The story's mix of broad comedy, pathos and noisy violence is pretty uneven, doesn't always make sense (Yo-Landi and Ninja let Dev go after he's animated Chappie, even though he knows where they live), and reverts to B-movie cliche in the final showdown, a version of the three-way stand-off in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but with much bigger guns. But Blomkamp's direction is fluidly kinetic, there are some clever twists, and Chappie is a terrific CGI creation. He may lack a recognisable face, but the voicing and motion capture work of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, and a script that nicely charts his intellectual and emotional development, create a wonderfully engaging and sympathetic character who is the human heart of this patchwork fable.
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