‘Chappie’ Sets a High Bar (Film Review)

Looking at the slate for the coming year in movies, there are a lot of things to be excited about. 2015 is shaping up to be an incredible year for movie fans. The Avengers: Age of Ultron is right around the corner; Star Wars: The Force Awakens sits as a beacon guiding us towards the year’s end; Ian McKellen is set to play an elderly Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes while Tom Hardy resurrects Mad Max in Mad Max: Fury Road. This is all without even considering the autumn Oscar bait season, which always provides a wide array of interesting films to tickle ones cinematic fancy.

While all of these movies seem poised to break records at the box office and delight fans and critics alike, it’s important to note that the bar for best movie of 2015 has already been set, and it’s pretty high. Chappie, the latest science fiction romp from Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) is, undoubtedly, the first great movie of the year.

At first glance, Chappie feels like it might be somewhat overly reliant on tropes and familiarity. Point in fact, watching the trailer for the film evokes memories of the 80’s hit Short Circuit with a dash of Robocop thrown in for good measure. On the surface, both of these comparisons aren’t necessarily far off the mark; Blomkamp’s genius, however, is not necessarily in telling new and original stories, it’s in telling familiar stories in new and original ways.

Right off the bat, Chappie mirrors the documentarian device of Blomkamp’s breakout film, District 9; the audience is given a healthy dose of exposition in the form of news reports that set the scene. Massive crime waves have led to the Johannesberg Police Department to seek new ways to clean up the streets without risking the lives of people. Naturally, they turn to robotics company Tetravaal to help solve their whole “people are dying” problem and, soon, waves of police drones hit the street to help clean up the town. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Newsroom) plays Deon, the engineer in charge of the program. In his spare time, he supplements the work he does with Tetravaal by attempting to create the first true artificial intelligence, which he of course achieves. Despite opposition from his superior (Sigourney Weaver, who is as good as ever if somewhat out of place) he sneaks the busted body of a drone set for recycling into his van in an attempt to bring his AI program to life. Tragedy strikes, however, when a gang of criminals (led by Ninja and Yo-Landi of Die Antwoord, both ostensibly playing versions of themselves) carjack the scientist and take his prize from him. Though Deon wants his creation to be used for good, the gang sees the benefit of having an indestructible police drone on their side and attempts to teach the robot how to be “the most badass gangster in all of JoBerg.”

Again, on the surface, this more or less sounds exactly like a rehash of Short Circuit and Robocop. However, Blomkamp and script co-writer Terri Tatchell have taken these familiar elements and used them to craft a story that feels far bigger and far more important than either of those main influences. Chappie isn’t simply a story about man versus machine or good versus evil; it’s an exploration of what it means to be alive and the grey areas of morality.

Disgust with some characters gives way into sympathy as the film progresses; characters who might, in other movies, be the hero turn out to be villainous. Characters lie for good reasons, tell the truth for bad reasons, and stuck in the middle is Chappie, trying his level best to make sense of his world and his existence. There isn’t enough praise in the world that can be given to Blomkamp’s regular leading man, Sharlto Copley, who brings Chappie to life with a vocal and motion capture performance. In Copley’s hands, Chappie is more than just another animated science fiction character; he is truly alive in every sense of the word. It’s a testament to the actor’s ability that he was able to capture as much emotion as he was able in a role that, by its very nature, precluded the use of a face for emoting. Body language and inflection provide the emotional core of Chappie and the result is truly impressive.

Indeed, if none of the Andy Serkis mocap performances can convince the academy to create a new category for awards, perhaps Copley’s will. (That’s probably doubtful, but nobody ever accused the academy of being relevant.) Also impressive were Ninja and Yo-Landi. While neither member of the bizarre South African hip-hop duo could be called the acting powerhouse of a generation, I was genuinely shocked by and impressed with both of their performances. Yo-Landi, especially, showed a wide range of ability that could very well earn her further roles in the future. Any worries that their involvement in the film might in some way detract from the film itself are completely unfounded. In many ways, the movie is only enhanced by the duo.

Movies released in the first few months of the year are notorious for being, well, bad. It’s usually not until April that we start seeing the studios drop their better films. Chappie, however, is a breath of fresh air in an ocean of mediocrity. It’s a truly impressive piece of cinema that will more likely than not surpass District 9 in terms of regard and eventually be thought of as Blomkamp’s masterwork. The South African director has been good right out of the gate but Chappie is an impressive leap forward for this
auteur.

Chappie is in theaters now.

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