If you can’t go home again, at least you can have a bit of fun trying to get there.
That’s the lesson from Chappie, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s return to his native country after the misfire that was his big Hollywood film, Elysium, two years ago.
His 2009 debut, District 9, was a sharply-drawn sci-fi metaphor about apartheid and now, with the less satisfying but often entertaining Chappie, he’s back in his chaotic hometown of Johannesburg.
This time around, instead of the aliens coming from the sky, they come from within us. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is a young engineer for Tetra Vaal, a robotics company, who has developed a fleet of nimble robot police who are incorruptible, almost indestructible, impossible to hack, and deadly.
Thanks to them, crime is down drastically and corporate profits are up, something that pleases company president Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) and angers Deon’s nemesis, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a rival Tetra Vaal engineer who has come up with his own crime-fighting robot, a monster called The Moose.
But Deon wants more than law-enforcement glory. He wants to build a robot that can think, feel and have consciousness. But Michelle believes that’s a waste of time so, after perfecting his program and absconding with the body of a disabled droid destined for the scrap heap, Deon plans to play Dr. Frankenstein and see if he can meld human and machine.
What he didn’t plan on was getting kidnapped by three thugs — Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), and an American named Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo, The Walking Dead) — who want him to reprogram the robot (whom Yolandi names “Chappie”) to help them carry out heists around Joburg. These three need to raise cash fast to pay back a pumped-up gangster/warlord named Hippo (Brandon Auret).
When Chappie comes to life — a blank slate waiting to be molded — he can either follow in Ninja’s violent footsteps or heed the wisdom of his “maker” Deon and pursue art and knowledge for the sake of it.
It’s in the to-and-fro for Chappie’s “soul” that the film is at its best as the robot — voiced by the wonderful Sharlto Copley (the star of District 9) — tries to find his bearings in a world where people often aren’t what they seem and will hurt you as soon as help.
Underscoring this are the captivating performances from Jones and Visser, better known in music circles as the brains of the wildly quirky Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “The Answer”), one of South Africa’s most popular bands.
They basically play themselves, or at least the image they’ve portrayed of themselves, as a self-aware hip-hop hooligan (reminiscent of James Franco’s gangsta wannabe in Spring Breakers) and his weird sprite sidekick. (That their music, along with that of composer Hans Zimmer, is all over the soundtrack and they make shout-outs to their real selves, on T-shirts and such, throughout the movie only adds to the blurring of fiction and reality).
As Moore, Hippo, Tetra Vaal and the Johannesburg police all come after this hastily assembled family, the film becomes less persuasive as it devolves into explosions (and if you thought they were going to introduce The Moose and not let it blow a lot of stuff up, well, you’d be wrong.)
Until then, though Chappie is a sly send-up of both contemporary South African society — Johannesburg does have a global reputation for its violent crime — and previous movies about artificial intelligence.
Never mind that Weaver and Jackman are totally wasted or the laughable lapses in logic (why wouldn’t Tetra Vaal post at least one guard where its precious robot secrets are kept?), or that it lacks the social resonance of District 9. It’s a fun little ride, for at least part of the way.
Maybe next time, Blomkamp will actually get where he wants to go.
Cary Darling, 817 390-7571
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman
Rated: R (violence, strong language, brief nudity)
Running time: 120 min.