Screening at all cinemas
3 and a half stars
Ever since Mary Shelley, we have been fascinated with the idea of man creating life, and since Alan Turing begat the computer, our literary and filmic fascination has moved on from reanimated corpses to the creation of artificial sentience.
South African director Neill Blomkamp has made his stamp on the science fiction genre, with his debut film District 9 and its slick large-budget follow-up Elysium, and in Chappie he returns to South Africa of the near future where the police force have turned to robotics company Tetravaal to control crime, with human officers supported by robot officers.
Robotics engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) has worked long and hard on the robotic military weapon 'Moose' but his work is overshadowed by the more humanoid robots of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) currently employed by the police. When Tetravall boss Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) shuts Moore's project down, he sabotages Wilson's drones and Johannesburg riots.
Wilson, meanwhile, has created a sentient police droid nicknamed Chappie (Sharlto Copley), who could be the city's only hope, except that he has been stolen by a group of thugs (Die Antwood).
Blomkamp's film has a rawness to it, from his mixed use of digital formats, the jarring work of his camera team, his unglamorous Jo'burg locales, his Africaans-peppered screenplay, which does make for sometimes difficult viewing.
He and co-writer (and wife) Terri Tatchell draw on other films in the genre, sometimes derivatively, and the film would have been better for some more work on their one-note characters.
Sigourney Weaver is there for sci-fi cred, but unfortunately isn't given much to work with, while Hugh Jackman seems to enjoy playing the bad guy with his overly testosterone-charged Aussie engineer.
Much of audiences, and especially other critics, issues with this film seems to rest on the pair from South African rap group Die Antwood, oddly enough playing versions of themselves. Neither singers Yolandie nor Ninja are professional actors, and it shows, but their performances are raw and occasionally right on the money, and they bring an interesting sense of street culture to the film. Yolandie, especially, helps the audience build an emotional bond with the Chappie character.
Interestingly, motion-capture performer Sharlto Copley is given equal billing with his big-budget Hollywood co-stars. His work as Chappie is very physical, from scared and bewildered child to posturing teen, and will add this character alongside Number Five, Robocop and Wall-E as one of the more memorable celluloid androids.
Something of a warning, though. I see a lot of films, so many that I feel I've become inured to onscreen violence, but a few moments in this film made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I'm glad the MA rating is there so I can tell my kids they're far too young for this film.