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Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie: Back to the District

nullChappie is both a
technical marvel and a hard-driving, highly emotional film. So much of it works
that it’s a shame director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp can’t keep it on track to
the very end. Perhaps the biggest difference between it and Blomkamp’s exceptional
District 9 is that the earlier film
came as a complete surprise, from an unknown South African filmmaker, while
this one has a lot to live up to.

Its greatest achievement is the verisimilitude of its
visuals: as in District 9, you
believe the title character is absolutely real as he interacts with his human
costars. (In fact, District 9’s
breakout star, Sharlto Copley, performed on-set as Chappie with his fellow
actors; then animators painted him out and replaced him with the ultrarealistic
droid.)

null

In the near-future world of Johannesburg, rampant crime has
been quelled by robotic cops, manufactured by a local company run by Sigourney
Weaver (every young sci-fi filmmaker’s heroine). Engineer Hugh Jackman has
built a prototype of a gigantic robot named Moose that could do the work of
a  squadron, but Weaver won’t OK it.
Meanwhile, staffer Dev Patel is experimenting with artificial intelligence, and
secretly inserts his test software into a damaged robocop that’s about to be
destroyed. With that, Chappie is born. Then Patel is kidnaped by some punk
hoodlums, played by Ninja and ¥o-Landi Vi$$er of the South African rap-rave
band Die Antwoord. They unexpectedly become Chappie’s “parents,” coaching him
to help them pull off a dangerous heist.

Chappie enters the movie as a complete innocent and quickly
wins our hearts. At first he’s a child, learning words and concepts, but as the
story progresses he becomes more self-aware. He not only has to choose between
right and wrong but determine his own fate as an artificial being in a
temporary body.

Despite echoes of District
9
and even older films like Short
Circuit
, Chappie is an impressive
piece of work—until Blomkamp goes off the rails in a climax that doesn’t make
much sense. He also drags us through the mud, figuratively speaking, depicting
the ugliest form of humanity. Talk about a dystopian future! By the end of the
film, the scuzzbag guardians seem positively benign alongside the other
depraved characters we encounter. The idea of placing a naïve, even lovable
creature in the midst of this environment is a risk that doesn’t entirely pay
off. But with the geniuses of Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop involved, Chappie convinces us that it could
actually happen.

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