The Irish Times published one of the most aggrieved reviews of Neill Blomkamp’s 2015 film Chappie, dismissing it with a single star rating and calling it “chaotic, discordant, sentimental and downright ugly”. Well: yes, yes, yes and yes! Correct! It is absolutely all of those things. Wonderfully so.
A distressing sequence halfway through ticks all of those boxes. Chappie, repurposed from a police robot into an AI (artificially intelligent) experiment, a mere child in terms of his developing consciousness, has been handed to thugs who beat him and burn him alive. Fleeing, he collapses on the concrete, staggering across train tracks, limping through the mud. He finally settles on a hill overlooking an overcast Johannesburg, lost and alone. This heartfelt outcast, maligned, mistreated, misunderstood. How apt that the film was too.
Even some of those who quite liked Chappie had a problem with its tonal balance. It appeared to be exploring AI but it certainly wasn’t hard sci-fi. It had tender emotional beats but was wrapped up in a violent gangster drama. And it was ridiculous. But the clash was the point. Chappie is an absurdist fairytale about an exploited innocent in a harsh adult world, its robot hero manipulated by crooks, blinged up and taught to strut. Who is that film for? Well, me I guess.
It arrived in the UK unceremoniously. The single press screening was the day before release, meaning the film had been practically dumped. Only a handful of journalists showed up. The one next to me huffed and puffed and grimaced at the screen while I laughed and teared up. Things did not bode well.
There were some good reviews for Chappie. And some middling ones, and also some bad ones. It boasts a dismal 32% on Rotten Tomatoes but more than that, there was the sense that it just didn’t work for people. Blomkamp commented on that in a Den of Geek interview in 2017. Its failure to connect still upset him, he said. “The audience didn’t get what I was going for.” Some of us did.
Chappie is a very human story about a robot. Continually damaged on the beat, police robot Scout 22 is deemed a reject, due for destruction until its creator Deon (Dev Patel) steals it, reboots it and evolves the AI. Deon is then intercepted by Ninja and Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord, actual Die Antwoord, South Africa’s rap-rave duo who, down on their luck, have turned to crime and nab the robot to assist on their heists. So begins a bizarre coming of age as 22, reborn as Chappie (Sharlto Copley, who acted the part on set), goes from scared child to misled adolescent hoodlum, and finally enlightened saviour.
Die Antwoord’s casting was jarring for those who didn’t know who they were or didn’t like them, or both. But they’re perfect, their outsized personalities, DIY dystopian hairstyles (basically: mullets) and DayGlo stylings accentuating the film’s cartoon aesthetic. Ninja comes across as a nasty piece of work, which he may well be. There have been awful allegations surrounding him over the years, including accusations of assault (denied by him) which have just seen Die Antwoord dropped from a London festival this August. Their future seems rocky.
On film – in this vacuum – they fit. Visser gives Chappie the most love: he brings out her maternal instincts and their relationship is pure and sweet. Blomkamp wrote the film (as he did District 9) with his wife Terri Tatchell and I’d assumed – perhaps ignorantly – that she was responsible for those tender moments, but she’s said that much of that is Blomkamp’s work, writing dialogue that reminded Tatchell of how he would speak to their daughter, a young teenager when Chappie was written. Clearly this is a film about parenthood – about getting it wrong, getting it right, and seeing your child grow up in a world fraught with dangers.
And Copley’s work as that child: oh my. The CGI animators replicated his every move, and it’s a clowning masterclass, beautifully nuanced and played for real. Chappie’s fragile vulnerability is all the more impressive considering that he doesn’t have much of an anthropomorphic face, just LED grids for eyes and a couple of metal bars for minimal expression. It’s easy to take it all for granted. I find it breathtaking.
Yes, this film is simplistic. Yes, some performances are broad, to put it lightly. Yes, it is derivative: nobody loves Robocop more than Blomkamp. But what a bracing, loopy, full-blooded cocktail it is. It ends with a son – metal as he may be – desperately attempting to resurrect his dead mother. Call it sentimental if you like. But that just seems heartless to me.
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