By Shane M. Dallmann
As I’ve suggested earlier, here’s an item that seemed to be a different film with every permutation of the trailer.
When I first became aware of CHAPPIE (I’m not going to go to the trouble of perpetually spelling the title out as CHAPPiE, as it appears on screen, sorry), I saw little more than a cute robot discovering what it means to be alive. And, having the entire decade of the 1980s amongst my formative years, I didn’t flash back to WALL-E. No, indeed–I went back to “No disassemble!” and figured we had a new Number Johnny Five on our hands. But from Neill Blomkamp? (Notice how they still say “From the director of DISTRICT 9” instead of “From the director of ELYSIUM?” Sorry–I never saw that one, either.)
Then we went from “This film is not yet rated” to an “R” and I paid closer attention to a trailer that made this look like another take on ROBOCOP.
And only LATER did I find out that such bankable names as Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver were even IN this movie!
Just what the hell was this CHAPPIE all about, anyway? I knew that I had to find out (especially as I’m playing a robot myself in THE EGO MACHINE, opening Friday, March 20th at Paper Wing Fremont, which is exactly where I expect to see you).
Well, when it comes to the story AND much of the look of the film, the answer is “…all of the above. And not.”
To my eyes, CHAPPIE is very much an updated 1980s film. And it really does consist of SHORT CIRCUIT crossed with ROBOCOP (strange as that may seem). And I don’t believe it’s a coincidence for a split second–the similarities are simply too many to ignore.
The robot that eventually becomes “Chappie” started life as a police droid (Johnny Five was a military weapon as conceived). His creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has also developed an amazing artificial intelligence program, but his company (headed by Weaver) has no interest in such things and forbids him to test the program… even on a damaged police droid. (Johnny Five’s best human friend–well, eventually–was ALSO of presumably Indian descent as played by Fisher Stevens, who took over from Steve Guttenberg as the human lead in SHORT CIRCUIT 2).
Now, as for ROBOCOP? Well, the film takes place in a future Johannesburg in which crime is so out of control that robotic policemen have been deployed to deal with such matters. Oh, and Hugh Jackman is quite upset that the (oh, just say it) “robocop” project was accepted over HIS behemoth enforcer droid named “Moose.” And yes, Moose looks like ED-209. And there’s a vicious criminal gang causing trouble for EVERYBODY.
Through a series of complications I’m not going to waste time spelling out (just trust me that CHAPPIE starts with a bang and moves relentlessly), Wilson is shanghaied by a trio of desperate crooks (“Ninja” and Yo-Landi Visser play characters named for themselves, while Jose Pablo Cantillo–yes, the guy who headed up the villainy in the CRANK movies–plays their “Yankee” compadre) who force him into reviving his damaged droid with the A.I. program so that they might use him for criminal activities and thus buy off an even WORSE bad guy (Brandon Auret as “Hippo,” with an accent thick enough to require English subtitles).
Two complications (three if you count the fact that Wilson is somehow allowed to walk away alive after this). First: “Chappie” (name assigned by the affectionate Yo-Landi), though capable of rapid learning and development, begins life in infancy and has to be trained as a child. Second: the aforementioned damage makes the replacement of Chappie’s battery a physical impossibility, and he only has five days to “live.”
And there’s the rub. One simply can’t describe CHAPPIE without making it sound like the rehash that it sincerely aspires to be. The only way to appreciate it is to actually see it and take in the amazing performance of Sharlto Copley in the title role as he’s aided and abetted by the very latest and greatest advances in special-effects technology. You’ve seen Andy Serkis bring primate characters to life without ever showing his human face… well, now watch Copley bring humanity to a mechanical apparition as Chappie learns about life, death, happiness, fear, crime, consciousness and even (and most impressively) forgiveness.
Ultimately, that’s what makes CHAPPIE such a difficult sell. It’s got the charm and pathos of such family-friendly films as SHORT CIRCUIT (and even E.T.) but it takes place in a vicious, hyper-violent ROBOCOP world (and yes, we’re talking the 80’s ROBOCOP, not a rendition that could safely be cut down to a PG-13). It’s a captivating and exciting film that deserves your attention, but you really ought not to bring the entire family.
It’s not “perfect” in my eyes (one too many epilogues ended things on a note that was a bit too AVATAR for my liking), but seasoned fans of emotional science-fiction are hereby steered.