In the age of cookie-cutter fantasy blockbusters and house-style super-hero crossovers, so few genuine auteurs are emerging of pulp cinema that one can’t help but compare the few names to stand out. Take Neill Blomkamp for example. Some have likened him to James Cameron for his seamless use of special effects; others, to Robert Rodriguez for his ability to maximise a small budget. To me, though, the writer-director of Chappie resembles most Quentin Tarantino for the way he appropriates ideas from the fringes of pop culture and then mixes and matches them to create a language of his own.
As Elysium (2013) demonstrated a little while back, this approach can be devastating when applied to social issues. Thankfully, Chappie steers clear of all that political jazz, focussing instead on age-old sci-fi tropes like artificial life, the race between man and machine, mind transference, and technological alternatives to mortality. In typical Blomkamp fashion, these ideas aren’t explored so much as tossed against the wall at breakneck speed. However, the absence of liberal finger-wagging makes it easier to look the other way when one of the two female characters becomes entirely defined by motherhood and token minorities get treated like disposable tableware.
I know: Dev Patel has a prominent role as Deon, the scientist who implants a childlike consciousness into our titular police droid (Sharlto Copley), but that’s mostly to emphasise the parallel with Johnny Five’s Indian co-inventor in Short Circuit (1986). Indeed, Chappie wears its influences on its sleeve, combining the idea of a sentient weapon struggling to maintain its innocence with the dystopian images of crime and corruption found in Robocop (1987). Consider the hulking war machine created by competing engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), how much its design resembles that of Ed 209.
In spite of these overt references, Chappie keeps us on our toes by inverting the central conceit of most “man versus machine” stories and presenting artificial intelligence as inherently superior to human reasoning. For example, Vincent’s prototype is criticised for bestowing too much power onto its corruptible flesh-and-blood pilot. In contrast, the police droids are depicted as effective peacekeepers throughout Johannesburg, only faltering when someone messes with their software. By the same token, Chappie manages to keep its moral core even after ending up in the care of hapless gangbangers.
Incidentally, our hero’s adoptive parents are portrayed by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the South African rap band Die Antwoord. Though I’d hesitate to call their performances layered, I love every moment the two share in Chappie, perhaps because they fully embrace the notion that humanity has got more to learn than to teach. Consider the scene in which “Daddy” explains his life philosophy to Chappie, pointing at the aftermath of a vicious dog fight: “Which dog do you want to be?” A more experienced actor might have emphasised the pathos inherent to the line, but Ninja keeps things earnest, revealing the simpleminded innocence behind his character’s corruption.
For all these thoughtful bits, however, Chappie asks us to swallow an uncanny amount of stupid. Somehow, we’re expected to believe that a major tech company would station its top scientist in a tiny cubicle and immediately dismiss him when he announces a historical breakthrough, that it would secure its most precious hardware in a wobbly yellow cage without censors or cameras, that a casual phone call would constitute its only safety measure when the aforementioned hardware goes missing, that its employees would just shrug when their colleagues start waving guns at each other, that its CEO (Sigourney Weaver) would marginalise a design deemed too heavily armed for law enforcement instead of rebranding the project for the military…
The list goes on and on, but I forgot each plot hole the minute Chappie would come back on screen, rejoicing us with its childlike antics and South African street slang. In terms of special effects, Chappie knocks it out of the ballpark, creating not just a machine in which we can believe but a genuine character for whom we root and care. Consider the detailed evolution of our hero’s movements as it learns to trust its caretakers, follow their teachings, defy their outlook, and ultimately forgive their flaws. I also dig the “tats” and absurd amount of bling around its neck. It’s style over substance, I realise, but, hey, if Tarantino can get away with it, why can’t Blomkamp?