Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie: Back to the District

Chappie 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.)

Dev Patel-Chappie-485

(Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

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.

Sigourney Weaver-Chappie

(Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024