Pre-2015, I imagine the question “you reckon renowned sci-fi filmmaker Neil Blomkamp (District 9) and legendary counter-culture Afrikans art rappers, Die Antword, will join forces to remake the beloved 80’s kids film, Short Circuit?” didn’t run through many people’s minds.
But like an insane accident in a parallel Star Trek universe, it’s somehow happened, and Chappie swaggered onto our screens in 2015. So how does it measure up to the rest of Blomkamp’s work, and most importantly, who’d claim supremacy in the robo-deathbattle of the ages – Chappie or Johnny Five?
Chappie begins like District 9 with vox pops from scientists and politicians gabbing on and setting the scene – South Africa, Johannesberg. The police are being overwhelmed by crime. Drugs and guns are on every street corner, and natural selection is the rule of the day. Life is shit (though not as shit as Elysium). Something needs to change. So in comes Tetravaal, a spunky robotics company who’ve perfected their “Scout” model robo-policemen. Bipedal, armor-plated, unhackable, and totally obedient. They’re the vanguard, the rushers when it comes to serious crimes in Old
Detroit J-Berg. You see these bad boys coming, you get down or you get put down etc. It’s all quite macho. If this film had been set in the US, they’d each have the Stars and Stripes painted on their feet, so when they’re crushing your law-breaking skull you’d be able to garble “God-Bless America” through broken teeth.
Built by super-nerd Deon Wilson (Dev Patel – Slumdog Millionaire), he feels they are only the tip of the iceberg. But Tetravaal big-wig Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver – Alien) is pretty stoked. Stock is up, and the police force just put in another big order for the scouts. It’s all looking peachy at the office, but one dude isn’t joining in the party. No, it’s not Detective John Kimble, it’s Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman – Real Steel). He’s an Australian in South Africa – that Sting b-side. He always wears shorts (even in the office), carries a side-arm (even in the office), and has a kind of weird mullet (yes, they still exist in the future). You’ll find him hiding at the back of the room because no one likes him. But it does also afford him the secret freedom to work with the freeweights he has stashed in half his cabinets (the other half contains protein supplements). He isn’t a fan of Deon, or the scouts. As a God-fearing ex-serviceman, he has a robot project of his own – the awesomely titled PROJECT MOOSE.
His solo-brain child, Project MOOSE is effectively a huge weapons platform. Imagine if ED209 turned up in Ghost in a Shell, or some other cyber-anime, and you’ll have an idea. If none of that made sense to you, just think of a big fucking robot with lots of guns. It’s got rocket boosters, a big grabby-hand, machine guns and even boasts anti-aircraft weaponry. The police-Commish laughs, “most criminals don’t have an air-force”. Oh my does that annoy Moore. You can tell from the thousand-yard stare that if him and his boys had had a MOOSE as backup back when they were in the jungle fighting those dudes, it might have all ended differently. But why do the police need to spend even more money when they’ve just bought a crap load of Scouts?
Importantly because it’s remote controlled by a person. You know, a person with morals, and a soul granted by God and all that shit. Not one of those hollow agent-of-Satan drone things. How long is it going to be before one gets struck by lightning or re-programmed? What are the police going to do when one gets wise and thinks “what is this human thing you call sex” and metallo-rapes it’s way across Africa? What could they do?! Bradley eases that concern – the Scouts don’t have robot dicks – but this doesn’t calm the tension in the room, and the police pass on the Moose.
Meanwhile, on the mean streets, former rappers Die Antwoord, Ninja and Yolandi, have turned to a life of crime to make ends meet. After a drug heist goes wrong, they get into the hulking gang mega-boss Hippo for 20 million Rand (about a million American). Worse still, they were followed by the cops. An armed detachment of Scouts drops down to spoil the deal. Ninja, Yolandi, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo – Crank) manage to escape minus one buddie executed by Hippo (you know, to make a point). Hippo’s dudes take the worst of the heat, though the big-man manages to take out Scout Unit 22 with a bazooka before exiting himself. Apparently, 22 is a bullet and trouble magnet. And this latest damage makes him a right off. He’ll be getting crushed and recycled in the morning.
After a hard day at the office, Deon returns home to his little cadre of robots. While his minions go about cooking, cleaning, and so fourth, he sits down to create the perfect AI. Deon has been trying to create AI at home on his PC for some time now. He’s been struggling at it for years. We don’t get a glimpse at the operating system, but I suspect it’s a lot more difficult that simply asking “Cortana, how do I built an AI” or Googling it. He certainly can’t Bing that shit. So he spends literally all night doing it. But, magically, it works in the end and he manages to upload “consciousness” to a USB drive (yeah, I imagine they have pretty hardcore USB’s in the future).
He takes it to Bradley, who isn’t interested. Why create robots that can think and write poetry and cry and stuff when all they need is obedient super soldiers? Deon leaves, dejected. Clearly, she doesn’t understand what this can mean for the world. So before 22 can get scrapped, he steals the body, puts it in his van, and cuts work early. He doesn’t get far though, as Ninja, Amerika and Yolandi have figured their only way of doing a score big enough to pay off Hippo would be to somehow disable the Scouts and rob a bank. So they aim to capture Scout Master #1 – Deon.
They’ve hit the gold-mine, however, and after finding the robot in bits in Deon’s van, command him to reprogram 22 to become their own personal gang-bot. But what awakens is not a death machine, but something more akin to a baby. Chappie (Sharlto Copley – District 9) is born. Unlike a real baby though, he doesn’t piss and shit and cry. He doesn’t have a kettle lead for an umbilical cord. But he does learns quick. And before long he’s talking like he’s spent a lifetime on the streets. It’s pretty cute/funny. Kind of like seeing that YouTube video of that kid telling Will Farrell to fuck off.
Deon is concerned that Ninja is going to teach Chappie the evils of man. So he quickly imparts some rules like “no guns, no crimes, no Johnny 5 references”. Deon then buggers off because he’s due back at the office. This gives Yolandi, Ninja and co. plenty of time to introduce Chappie to the world of 80’s cartoons, South African rap music, and medieval Japanese weapons.
Night by night, Deon returns to try and undo some of the damage done by Ninja. Yolandi loves Chappie like a child of her own, but Ninja is still bent on using him for evil. His rules aren’t as hardcore as Robocop’s directives, so Ninja easily manipulates Chappie into robbing cars and so fourth. He needs to “toughen up” and Ninja insists his bullying is for Chappie’s own good. It’s very much like Platoon, with Deon taking Willem Dafoe’s role, and Ninja as Tom Berenger’s Barnes: Chappie is a child of two fathers. Ninja teaches him the code of the streets. Kill or be killed. Deon is his moral centre, imparting his directives “don’t kill”, “don’t do crimes” and so fourth. Yolandi is his Mother, providing the nuturing he needs.
One day, Amerika and Ninja take Chappie on a ride to the other side of the city. They drop him off in front of some youths, and then drive off. Initially, the punks are scared; it’s one of those badass police droids, the same type who put Daddy in intensive care, and carted Mommy off to drug rehab. But Chappie is even more frightened. He’s alone in unfamiliar territory. And it’s not long before the kids are smashing him with bricks and petrol bombs. Chappie, albeit impervious to the damage, runs off into the night.
Instead of finding Mommy or his Creator, he runs into Moore. He’d been getting suspicious about Deon turning up at work at random times and generally not pulling his weight. So he’d followed him to Ninja’s compound, and witnessed Chappie painting. Obviously, he’s mortified, and surely evidence that some dweeb from England has given a machine “life” is enough to get the Scout programme pulled, giving Project Super Moose the greenlight. But Bradley can only seen the $$$, and denies his request. While the Scouts are working, MOOSE is grounded. Moore narrows his eyes. A plan is forming.
Thankfully, every Scout is fitted with a tracking device, and Moore is able to find and disable Chappie. Like the Bastard that he is, he then cuts off Chappie’s arm, and robs the special chip that allows Tetravaal to update/override every Scout in one go. Chappie escapes and makes it back home. Yolandi is furious at Ninja, and consoles the wounded Chappie. Meanwhile Moore puts his masterplan into effect – hacking and disabling all the remaining Scouts on the force. As J-Berg descends into chaos, Project MOOSE is a go. And Moore knows exactly which Godless, Satan-worshipping, Johnny-Five-is-alive robot he’s going to kill first…
I’ve taken the piss a bit about Chappie being too similar to Short Circuit. I’ve probably gone too far. There is a lot more to Chappie than a cheap knock-off of a 1980’s childhood classic. I mean, for one, it doesn’t star Steve Guttenberg. Short Circuit was about killer robots being built for the army when one magically becomes “alive”. It’s got scenes of him learning about death, and dancing and input. It has the sound track of the BeeGees.
Chappie, on the other hand, has the sounds of Die Antwoord.
That huge cultural shift alone is enough to differentiate the two films. Chappie’s consciousness is most certainly created by Deon, and not given by God (metaphorically) like in Short Circuit. He is a human creation, whereas Johnny Five is more of a miracle. The newer film is way more violent too, though lots of the guts and gore from the likes of Elysium and District 9 is missing. Maybe this is Blomkamp’s family robot film afterall? Cut out the swearing (about 90% of the dialogue), and you’d have a perfect Easter-afternoon affair.
According to sources, Blomkamp and wife-partner-writer wrote Chappie while working on Elysium. And while it does fix a lot of the problems I had with that movie, it still suffers from a few issues of it’s own. First, the news reports, documentary style, at the beginning didn’t really work for me. It felt like too much of a throwback to District 9. It was too obvious a tool to set the scene. Yeah, there’s a lot of ground to cover. But it was too brief, and all that crap about “No one knew where this would lead us” just lost it’s impact on me.
The ending, which I won’t spoil, was way too happy for the likes of this kind of film too. While it does suit the “liter” adult themes compared to his previous films, I think the last scene especially was a massive copout for Blomkamp. And come on, I can’t have been the only person who cringed when Sig was announcing “PROJECT MOOSE IS A GO” all serious like. As a badass sci-fi warrior legend, she’s sorely underused in this film.
But I loved Ninja/Yolandi and the rest of the casting. I initially found Die Antwoord, starring as themselves, a bit weird. Beyond Blomkamp and the unusual accent, they’re probably South Africa’s greatest export, and fitting them into a movie seemed akin to celebrities turning up as themselves in Hollywood films. Thankfully, Die Antwoord are weird and unique enough to make it work. Yolandi struggles initially with the material, but comes into her own as Chappie’s Mummy (maybe mirroring the fact they’re both parents to a small child of their own). While it’s hard to deny there is a weird sexual allure to Yolandi, she lacks the wholesome qualities that made Ally Sheedy the teenage nerd dream of 80’s. However, that suits the dark alleys of Johannesberg well. Ninja…I just totally believed Ninja from the beginning. I loved the tender moments between the three, and as with Yolandi, I really felt an undertone of emotion in some scenes from him.
There’s a lot going on, morally, in this story, and I felt Deon was kind of left out. It’s not so much of a tale of a talented coder bringing a machine to life and teaching it about being good and stuff. Nor is it about a group of gangsters desperate for a score. Neither story is the A story. They’re both kind of a B story, and both are left wanting. Yet, it still works. You do fall in love with Chappie regardless of all the different stuff going on at once.
Copley as Chappie is as excellent as ever, though he’s now purely CGI. And that’s disappointing. The physical acting he does it great. If it wasn’t for his voice, you’d think it was that badass Andy Serkis. But you can’t beat Short Circuit for having a robot that is actually…real. He wasn’t just a dude with some CGI on him. Someone made and built (and controlled) Johnny Five. There’s something physical about him. And his face is just so damn expressive. My Dad once told me that he felt the alien in Alien was so…alien because it didn’t have eyes. You couldn’t relate to that kind of shit. But Johnny Five, he’s got those big damn blinkers and those cool little eye-brow wings.
Hugh Jackman is understated, but again perfectly welcome here. Sadly, he’s someone who is often condemned to just (that’s right, I said just) being written off as that guy who played Wolverine. But he’s proven time and time again that he can toe-the-line between being a hero and a Bastard (the emphasis heavily on the B). The Prestige. Prisoners. Chappie joins those movies with Hugh Jackman playing a nuanced, horrible character. Sure, I felt the inclusion of religion a bit ham-fisted, but all the little things like his shorts, his rugby ball, even his mullet all perfectly contributed to him being so unlikable. It goes to prove you don’t have to kill your Dad (here’s looking at you Kylo-Ren) to be the bad guy.
The setting is really solid here too. I moaned that it was too wretched and miserable in Elysium to be believable, but here you really do get the feeling that we’re only a few years away from panic on the streets. There’s a lot of Old Detroit from Robocop in Blomkamp’s vision of a gang-controlled J-Berg, and it paints a picture of a city you’d never want to visit. The inclusion of Die Antwoord as actual gangsters fits the meta of South Africa being a total write off. I mean if rappers who get referenced by Lady Gaga can’t make it, who can? Another welcome change from Elysium is that the message of Chappie is much more understated. Elysium was a burning placard that read RICH=HAPPY POOR=SAD. Chappie is way more nuanced than that, and actually makes you wonder if creating a naive AI is the right idea afterall.
In the great pantheon of Neil Blomkamp dystopian sci-fi films, Chappie ranks highly behind only District 9. It’s pleasing to see that fame and glory hasn’t totally corrupted Blomkamp, and the fact he’s still making the films he wants (aka, not super hero films or remakes) speaks highly of his character. While he’s stated he wants to get away from gritty urban sci-fi movies, Chappie stands alongside District 9 as a film I’d love to a see a sequel to. And that’s high praise coming from an old movie bastard like me.
Get it watched.