Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, and the voice of Sharlto Copley
Rated R for Violence, Language and Brief Nudity
I just love it when movies defy my expectations. Whether through quality ("Redemption") or content ("Faster"), I love the feeling of being immersed in a film that takes me into unexpected directions.
At first glance, "Chappie," the new film by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, looks to be a ripoff of "Robocop" (the original or the remake, take your pick). In fact, while it takes elements of both (there's even a machine that looks like a camo version of ED-209 from Verhoeven's original, and it plays a big role in the film), a closer cousin would be "E.T." A more violent version, but the story similarities are hard to miss.
Johannesburg is in chaos. Criminals run rampant on par with those in "The Crow," and the police are unable to deal with the problem. Enter Tetravaal, a company that builds robots to take the load off police. The CEO, Michelle Bradley (Weaver), has selected the Scouts, designed by Deon Wilson (Patel), to be the first one out of the gate, and they are a massive success. Another worker, Vincent Moore (Jackman), has designed something called the Moose (the ED-209 looking thing), but everyone says it's too over-powered to be useful, much to his frustration.
Deon, however, has found a way to create sentient A.I.: artificial intelligence that can think for itself. He wants to test it on a Scout that is headed for the scrap heap, but Bradley gives him the no-go, citing the red tape. Undaunted, he takes the soon-to-be destroyed machine for himself to test out his program, but that's when three thieves kidnap him in the hopes that he can turn off the Scouts so they can commit a heist.
What I like about this movie is that it gives everyone their own motives, and it's economically done. We learn what drives Deon, Ninja, Yo-Landi, Vincent and Chappie the robot (Copley). I also liked how the characters have hidden depths; some aren't as bad as they seem while others are worse.
The performances are also top-notch. Dev Patel, who hasn't done much since "Slumdog Millionaire" apart from the much-despised live action version of "The Last Airbender" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," is very good as Deon. He's a father-like figure to Chappie, and this relationship is nicely developed. Yo-Landi Visser is also good as Yo-Landi, the only one of the thieves who views Chappie as something more than a criminal associate. Sharlto Copley, performing the part via motion capture, lends innocence and earnestness to the character. He's impossible not to sympathize with. Chappie can make you laugh, cheer, or cry.
The real surprise is Hugh Jackman. Easily one of the most handsome and likable actors working today (both in the characters he plays, and according to reports, in real life), Jackman is oh-so-easy to hate in "Chappie." It'll be a long time before I'll be able to accept him as a nice guy in a movie.
What I like about Neill Blomkamp is that he doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence. He successfully combines visceral action and adrenaline with thought. His breakout hit, "District 9," was a parable about Apartheid while "Elysium" was a sci-fi metaphor for the growing distance between the rich and the poor. "Chappie" isn't really a parable, but it deals with what it means to have consciousness and to be human. These aren't revolutionary, or even new, concepts, but Blomkamp gives them a very fresh coat of paint.
The film's story isn't free of contrivance, character development is on the thin side, and the ending is simultaneously padded while not giving at least one of the characters satisfying closure, but ultimately these are small quibbles. It's the old adage, "third time's the charm" for Blomkamp, and considering the high quality of his previous films, that's impressive.