In the near-future a robot police force keeps law and order on the streets of Johannesburg. When droid 122 is badly damaged in a fire-fight it is scheduled for destruction and recycling. Robotic whizz Deon (Dev Patel) patches up the robot, grants it the gift of sentience and it is reborn as Chappie. But when local criminals Ninja and Yolandi kidnap Chappie and attempt to retrain him to help them carry out a series of small-time carjackings before progressing to a huge money-truck heist, his life and his innocence are put into jeopardy.
Johannesburg native Neill Blomkamp has proved himself one of the most creative talents in film over the past few years, making a name for himself with thoughtful films, mostly focussing on very human stories that take place in a dystopian near-future. The 35 year old writer/director has had hit films with District 9 and Elysium, yet in truth his writing is actually extremely derivative. He draws heavily from classic TV such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek as well as movies including Robocop and Short Circuit. However who can blame him for taking inspiration from some of the very finest sci-fi writing of the past half century? His winning ability lies in taking these ideas, expanding upon them, and adapting them for contemporary cinema. Much like District 9 and Elysium, Chappie is a film that explores several high-concept themes such as artificial intelligence, drone-technology, enforced ownership, slavery and child abuse and does so without preaching. Blomkamp’s directorial skills are impressive, he always allows his performers the space and time to express themselves fully.
As the CGI-rendered Chappie, Sharlto Copley is an amazing presence in this film. His performance is confident and assured and his motion capture work is phenomenal. His movements as Chappie are fluid and realistic, imbuing Chappie with genuine life. The scenes that follow Chappie's 'birth' are captivating - scared of people and his surroundings - Chappie is timid and watching him cower when being shouted at or physically hurt is heartbreaking.
Ninja and Yolandi, making their screen debuts, produce mighty performances. Ninja's towering presence will fill audiences with fear whilst Yolandi, who becomes Chappie’s de facto Mother, swings wildly from drug-crazied, gun-totting criminal to heart-warming protector. They're broken, rotten people, with little to live for apart from drugs, money and their next heist. They live in squalor and fear of the Slumlord, Hippo (Brandon Auret) knowing that they must do what he says, or face his brutal justice. Yet somehow before the film reaches its shocking conclusion, they work their way into audience's hearts.
Sigourney Weaver is competent but underused in a thankless and rather mundane role. Hugh Jackman fairs better in a role that sees him playing heavily against type as a mullet-haired, perhaps unfairly overlooked, ex-military thug that has moved into designing law enforcement robots that are so over-the-top that it's funny.
Dev Patel's performance, sadly, feels unnecessarily flamboyant, almost as if he feels the need to play the part of the seasoned actor next to Ninja and Yolandi. If this is the case he needn't have bothered as their honest and brave performances blow him off the screen.
There are several scenes in the first act that will force audiences to the brink of their tolerance for physical and mental abuse in films. The brutal treatment meted out to Chappie by Ninja and some other random thugs makes for uncomfortable viewing but those that persevere will be rewarded with a film that impresses as both entertainment and social commentary.
Viewers may well figure out the way the story will end long before the final act unfolds but the impact is undiminished, hitting hard, and asking testing questions that will resonate long after the credits roll.