Fans of "District 9" will have no trouble recognizing Neill Blomkamp's footprint in "Chappie," the Canadian-South African director's third feature film about a titanium police droid that gains consciousness thanks to a big software update.
Blomkamp's style is felt in a story that bounces among unlikely heroes, richer humor than what you'd get in the often lowest-common denominator chuckles of a Marvel flick, and a plot line of stakes that just go up and up.
That's all very parallel to what we saw in Blomkamp's directorial debut in 2009's "District 9."
A few plot details follow, but nothing too heavy in spoilers!
Once a ubiquitous member of the cop-robot force that helped rein in scary homicide rates in Johannesburg, Unit 022 is damaged and labeled fit for the scrapyard.
That's until his designer, an engineer named Deon (Dev Patel) who moonlights in Red Bull-fueled attempts at designing true AI, installs his latest software attempt into his head.
It works. Unit 022 becomes Chappie (voiced and motion-acted by Sharlto Copley), essentially a child with a hyper-capable body and a blistering learning pace. Vulture calls Chappie a robotic version of the widely-hated Jar Jar Binks. And sure, there's some validity in that — from the character's odd English and his bodily dimensions to his nervous traits.
But Chappie won't annoy you like Jar Jar did the masses of "Star Wars" fans. One early scene is actually pretty heart-wrenching, as Chappie is pushed into homelessness by stewards eager to toughen him up.
Unfortunately for him, Chappie is a hero lost among anti-heroes (balanced against a few villains). Chappie's malleability is used by a trio of bad but not totally rotten gangsters — they're in falsified debt to a ruthless warlord (Brandon Auret).
The gangsters are played by rap duo Die Antwoord's Yolandi Visser and Watkin Tudor Jones, alongside Jose Pablo Cantillo. Apparently the rappers weren't the easiest to get along with on the set. A South African publication reported on Jones' backseat directing, and heard from anonymous sources on the set that Blomkamp himself said "I don’t ever want to be in the same room as him again."
Too bad they won't work with Blomkamp again. Tudor Jones and Visser are a bright spot in a cast of more established names that don't stand out themselves.
They have the benefit of bringing their real-life physiques to the set, and even spray-paint a few decals from some of their albums onto Chappie's bodywork (not a bad product placement). The gangsters try to mold Chappie into an unbeatable asset for high crime, though Yolandi Visser's character is just as happy reading him a book at night.
Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore, a frustrated meathead smart enough to have engineered his own robotic weapon (the mind-controlled "Moose"), but not quite smart enough to see why Deon's versatile robots have performed better with the Johannesburg police's budget allocators. When he's not causing problems for Chappie and the gang, Jackman's character fumes at his desk, wringing his hands into a rugby ball.
Even Chappie's maker, Deon, doesn't have the best instincts as he's kept in thrall by the three gangsters, who in a limited way, have come to care for Chappie beyond his ability to pack muscle.
Here's a scene of them interacting with the robot:
Much of the film's humor arises from the dissonance between Chappie's unmatched ability to fight while remaining so child-like. Soon enough, the gangster's den starts to resemble an unlikely but recognizable, almost loving home for Chappie's accelerated boyhood.
Like any machine, he'll take order inputs to an extreme that humans would implicitly understand as not exactly what was meant.
Finally, "Chappie" keeps driving to greater and greater stakes. The gangsters might be in it for Chappie's criminal potential, but that's soon overtaken by the world-shifting implications of bona fide artificial intelligence — a machine that learns, feels, fears, and longs to survive. Just like the bumbling protagonist Blomkamp's hit "District 9," the characters in "Chappie" are lost in something a lot greater than them.
Overall, "Chappie" is a solid action flick with a plot spine strong enough to string together the gunshow set-pieces, which come quickly enough. Blomkamp keeps the same mind-blowing contrast between futuristic weaponry and gritty urban settings we enjoyed on our last tour of near-future Johannesburg with "District 9."
The ending raises a few questions — some of them on the nature of AI, others, less appealingly, about the plausibility of the last few scenes, which we won't spoil here.
Perhaps one of the biggest questions the film posits is what happens when AI is smart enough to do more than it was designed for?
It's a question a few films this year will focus on from British thriller "Ex Machina" to the highly-anticipated "Avengers" sequel.
At the very least, if you enjoyed "District 9"— quirks, action, plot and all — Blomkamp's latest won't disappoint.
Watch a trailer for the film below: