Introduction: I fell in love with Neill Blomkamp when I saw his first full-length work, District 9, which ranks as one of my favorite movies of all time. Not only do I appreciate his willingness to use his native South Africa as a backdrop, as well as cast South African actors, I also enjoy his cinematic style and storytelling that, while it might not pull too many surprises, always leaves me with a great deal to think about. Chappie happens to be one of those movies that encapsulates what I’ve come to expect from and love about Blomkamp’s vision for his films. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Chappie (2015) actually tells multiple stories wrapped around a single concept – the idea of a robot becoming Human. The film is set in modern day Johannesburg where crime is rampant. In order to stave off the tide of violence, the police institute a program that brings robot sentries to work alongside them. Deon Wilson, one of the pioneers of the program, is hailed as a hero; but in his spare time, Deon works on technology that would enable robots to assume more human-like characteristics in terms of emotion and thought. His plot intersects with that of Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika, three low-level street thugs who remain in a crime boss’ debt. To get themselves out of a jam, they kidnap Deon and force him to reprogram a derelict police robot so they can train it to fight on their behalf. Deon does so but ends up implementing his AI prototype, thus fashioning a robot with a childlike mind. But what place is there in the world for a Human-like robot named Chappie? Especially when Deon’s rival, Vincent Moore, wants to unleash a robotic killing device and is determined to take out anyone who stands in his way, whether it’s man or machine.
My Take: This was one movie where the trailer is just the tip of the story’s iceberg. I expected to at least like Chappie as I’m a fan of Blomkamp’s work but I didn’t expect to enjoy it this much.
For starters, the plot takes a tried-and-true sci-fi robot formula and injects heart into it. Yes, Human-like robot stories have been done before but usually it’s with more of a dystopian slant. Instead, Chappie asks a simple question – what if you could make a robot Human – and runs with it using an organic, modern storyline. The characters are not out of place and all work to show what it means to be Human, both the good (Deon), the flawed (Ninja and Yolandi), and the bad (the criminal element and Vincent). The world-building especially works and is very realistic and workable. Of course it helps that it’s filmed using a real-world backdrop, but it still comes across as something that could actually happen and doesn’t sugarcoat the consequences.
Character-wise, the only easily-recognized names in the cast are Hugh Jackman (as Vincent) and Sigourney Weaver (who plays Deon and Vincent’s boss). But it’s the indie ensemble who steals the show. Dev Patel is probably best recognized from his role in Slumdog Millionaire and brings a heart and genuine warmth to Deon’s character. Even though he plays a geek/nerd figure, he’s not a stereotype and possesses a backbone that makes him admirable. Likewise, Ninja and Yolandi (both billed as themselves) balance each other out with Ninja being the hothead and Yolandi being the heart. (In reality, Ninja and Yolandi make up the South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord, so this was a nice nod to South African culture, particularly zef, a countercultural movement.)
The voice of Chappie is provided by Sharlto Copley, who is no stranger to Blomkamp’s films as he starred in District 9 and worked alongside Matt Damon in Elysium. Copley gives Chappie a sense of innocent charm bolstered by his childlike wonder of the world as he struggles to grasp tough Human matters, namely death. All in all, the cast is perfect and not one character tries to gain more importance than anyone else. Though Chappie technically is the star, his co-stars shine just as brightly in some very dark places. Make no mistake – some of the scenes are heart-rendering, especially when we witness Chappie trying to survive in a world that dislikes him. I’m not one to get emotional over movies, books, or television shows, but there were a few times during Chappie that I cried because it was just so heart-breaking to watch.
If I could find any fault with Chappie, it would be that, much like with District 9, some of its ending scenes rely heavily on action sequences for a time and the storytelling falls a little by the wayside. However, much of the movie builds up to this climactic fight, which makes for some very tense moments, so it’s not entirely out of place. That being said, viewers who want a sci-fi movie with no action in favor of character development and exposition alone will probably not be keen on the “battle” near the movie’s end. But I was fine with it as the movie, in and of itself, isn’t really action-based aside from a few gun fights and skirmishes. Instead, it possesses a more introspective focus rather than an outward display of loud action set pieces, which I appreciated.
Since I had just watched Chappie not long after seeing the Wachowskis’ 2015 release Jupiter Ascending (which I’ve also reviewed), I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two. Where Jupiter Ascending relished in massive settings and backdrops, Chappie is smaller in scale but by no means any less impressive as it makes up for any lack of expansive physical space with heart and thoughtfulness. Also, while Jupiter Ascending tries to tackle too many themes and world-building elements, Chappie explores just one idea and expands this concept appropriately to fit the movie’s scope and time so viewers are never forced to contend with extended scenes of exposition or random ideas tossed in without context. Thus, for me, Chappie was a more cohesive piece than Jupiter Ascending and, for that, I enjoyed it far more.
There were also some interesting spiritual parallels in this film, particularly related to creation, sin, and redemption. In a sense, Deon is Chappie’s creator and he wants Chappie to do what’s right. But Chappie’s inquisitive nature opens him up to bad influences, namely from Ninja who wants to craft Chappie into a “gangsta.” “Don’t let people take away your potential, Chappie,” Deon tells him and Chappie does his best to make his creator proud; but there are moments when Chappie starts dabbling in mischief and violence. At these times, Deon is disappointed in Chappie and rebukes him but never hates him. Thus, Chappie is a bit like an Adam figure: he is a created being designed with a free will to do either right or wrong and is eventually tempted to do wrong, which causes him to “sin” against his creator. Similarly, while God doesn’t hate sinners, he doesn’t approve of wrongdoing, much like how Deon doesn’t hate Chappie when he does something wrong but doesn’t agree with Chappie’s criminal behaviors.
There is also the underlying theme of redemption. Chappie, as it turns out, was originally slated to be junked after being damaged. Rather than watch him go to scrap, Deon saves Chappie and rebuilds him. Thus, Chappie’s old self is transformed into a new creation. Likewise, while he was initially intended to “die,” Deon brings him back to life. Chappie, in return, tries to save others from death; and even when he cannot, he makes an effort to redeem two characters by giving them a new “life” as well. In the same way, another theme at work here is that a person’s externals are of very little consequence. Yolandi best explains this when, during her reading of a bedtime story to Chappie, reveals that what truly matters is what’s on the inside (i.e. the soul). “The outside, this is just temporary,” she explains. “When you die, the soul inside goes to the next place.” In other words, the physical body isn’t meant to last but the internal things that make up a person’s true being exist for eternity. Thus, Chappie’s story is one of creation, fall, and redemption, and while it’s not an exact parallel to the Bible, it’s compelling enough to allow for some good conversation starters.
In the end, Chappie wasn’t what I initially thought it was going to be in good way! At first, I assumed it was going to be an action sci-fi movie with some philosophical ponderings sprinkled in. Instead, this movie tackles big questions about life, death, and purpose but doesn’t preach, leaving it open-ended for viewers to take away their own meaning.
Content Breakdown: Chappie was given an R rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – There is a range of profanities, from mild to harsh, that are both spoken and displayed on walls as graffiti but their usage isn’t pervasive. However, certain words (especially the f-word and its variants) are spouted off frequently in some scenes (and in some cases are used for comedic effect, especially when Chappie swears).
Violence –There are scenes of gun and gang-related violence that show victims being shot with blood splatter but, for the most part, such moments avoid excessive gore. The most violent act occurs when a robot impales and decapitates a man (though the beheading occurs off-screen, we see his head and body tossed into the air from a distance). Lastly, there are scenes of intense peril when Chappie is attacked, once by a gang and later by police, though these scenes are more emotional than violent, especially since Chappie repeatedly pleads with them to stop.
Sexual Material – In a blink-and-miss-it moment, there is a topless woman glimpsed on a television set in a criminal’s lair but the image isn’t focused on nor is it the subject of the scene (it’s simply in the background). Yolandi wears a shirt that has the word “sex” on it but there is no accompanying explicit image. Lastly, Ninja and Yolandi are a (presumably) unmarried couple and do share a bed but never engage in any kind of sexual activity.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Chappie stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended. This film is solidly an R due to its language and violence, so it is too intense for children – not to mention the scenes of tense action might be frightening, particularly when Chappie, who in many ways is like a child, gets attacked.
Older Children & Teens – The edited version that is sure to air on television would be fine for teens though most older children, I would venture to guess, won’t be attracted to this movie.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for persons who like smart, emotional science fiction stories.
Chappie is the type of movie that leaves you thinking about it long after it’s over. I watched it in a single evening and was pondering it the following day as it left a deep impression on me. While this is a quieter, more organic-looking sci-fi film compared to other movies, it’s by no means less important. Fans of Neill Blomkamp, such as myself, won’t be disappointed as well as viewers looking for a sci-fi movie that possesses both a heart and brains.