Past the Popcorn: Blomkamp Once Again Dazzles Us With SciFi in Chappie

by Jeff Walls

Director Neill Blomkamp exploded onto the scene in 2009 with the Oscar-nominated hit District 9, and like J.J. Abrams he has quickly become a key figure in the science fiction genre.  His follow-up Elysium had a little more star power thanks to Matt Damon, but it did not quite have the same impact as his first film. The big news now is that Blomkamp will take over the reins of the Alien franchise in 2017, just like Abrams took over the Star Wars franchise. But first, the director presents us with the story of a sentient robot named Chappie.

The movie opens in the near future when the introduction of robot officers into the Johannesburg police force has driven the crime rate to an all-time low.  This is quite an accomplishment for the creator of these robots, a scientist named Deon Wilson, but he strives for more.  He spends his nights working hard to create an artificial intelligence program that will hopefully turn one of his robots into an actual sentient being.  When he thinks he has the program correct, he hijacks one of the robots that is scheduled for termination.

chappie-insetHis plan goes awry, however, when he and the robot are kidnapped by some lowly crooks that are looking for a big score.  Wilson convinces them to let him try his program and it works.  The result is Chappie, a robot with actual thoughts, fears, and emotions.  At first, Chappie is like a newborn baby, unsure of the world but curious about his surroundings.  He learns quickly, though, and although Wilson wants him to learn to paint and write poetry, the criminals want to teach him their criminal ways so that he can help them to pull off a major heist.

Meanwhile, a former military man who has created his own robot is looking for a way to get his project off the ground.  Unfortunately, with Wilson’s robot officers being so successful, he is unable to get permission from management to activate his project; at least, not without discrediting Wilson’s bots first.

No matter how one feels about Neill Blomkamp’s films, there is no denying that the special effects in his movies are phenomenal.  Chappie is no exception.  Never for a second does the audience doubt that the robots populating this film do physically exist within it.  When Chappie interacts with the human characters and vice versa, it appears genuine.  Credit is certainly due both the special effects wizards and the performance of frequent Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley, who plays Chappie.  Surprisingly, Copley stated that it was not a motion-capture performance, but rather that the animators actually animated over his movements.  That makes the authenticity of the robot characters in the film even more impressive.

The special effects do their job brilliantly to help tell the story, but the story itself is fairly inconsistent.  The movie works best when it is playing for comedy, especially in the scenes between Chappie and his adopted parents Ninja and Yolandi (a real life rap duo who are big fans of Blomkamp’s work).  When the action picks up, though, the movie slips into cheesiness.  This is largely due to an overkill of slow motion that garnered more laughs than oohs and aahs from the preview audience.  This cheesiness undercuts the drama of the film and the emotional connection to Chappie himself.

Once you get past the crazy final action sequence, the movie does go in interesting plot directions in its final act.  Unfortunately, a key aspect of this finale relies on the audience buying into what seems to be a fundamental plot flaw.

Chappie entertains and moves along at a good pace and it is worth watching for the special effects alone, but overdramatized action scenes prevent it from becoming a classic in the vein of District 9.  Hopefully Blomkamp will get the magic back for his Alien film.  One thing is certain, though: it is going to look fantastic.

Chappie opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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