Rahm Emanuel, locked in an unexpectedly close race for Mayor of Chicago, might want to take in a showing of Neill Blomkamp’s new film “Chappie,” which suggests that robots could effectively police a crime-riddled city. Chicago—indeed, all of Illinois—is broke. We have “smash and grab” gangs pulling robberies on Michigan Avenue’s Miracle Mile. The South Loop is not safe after 7 p.m.— ( a woman waiting for the red line at 1:15 p.m. got mugged a couple days ago.) Despite Emanuel’s front-page “Time” spread some months ago (“Chicago Bull”), there seems to be no way to get the gangs—or, for that matter, the recalcitrant teachers—under control. So check out the idea of robot cops, Rahm!
We are told in the first few moments of the film that the robotic police officers (known as “Scouts”) have prevented 300 murders or violent incidents in Johannesburg (South Africa) on a daily basis. Given the fact that thugs have been stealing women’s pocketbooks in broad daylight just one street over from Michigan Avenue, as the ladies wait for their morning bus ride to work, a robotic policeman doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. And say what you will about the fact that robots as cops aren’t exactly a revolutionary concept, the robots in “Chappie” are truly amazing, special effects-wise.
Back in 2004, Blomkamp made a 1.5 minute film called “Tetra Vaal” that posited a robotic police force for 3rd world countries. In his second film, “Elysium,” such a robotic police force existed. The thuggish police robots in “Elysium” were trying to keep all the Worker Bees on Earth while the wealthy folk, led by Jodie Foster, lived on a completely different plane above them. It was, if you will, a story about the “haves” and the “have nots” The dwellers on Earth were like Occupiers, and the rich folk were up above swimming in their pools and curing all their diseases with superior medical technology.
Reviewers were not kind to Matt Damon’s star turn in “Elysium,” but almost everyone loved Blomkamp’s first film, “District 9,” in which Sharlto Copley (the voice of Chappie) slowly turned into a horrible creature and we all cringed as it occurred. Me? I liked both movies, and I liked this one, too. Blomkamp’s films show me a part of the planet I will probably never get to visit, and he grapples with real-life Big Issues without being preachy. He has a keen eye for the sets and special effects, and the music by Hans Zimmer was also good. Add it all up, complete with some tear-jerker moments rooting for the childlike robot being bullied by the bad guys, and he had me at “I am Chappie.”
I found the special effects of this film to be amazing, with Image Engine of Canada and New Zealand’s Oscar-winning Wetta Workshop collaborating. The motion capture performance is much superior to normal CG work; Blomkamp spent 6 months working with F/X technicians to create 3-D models that could mimic human mobility down to our real-life double-jointed knees.
The echoes of bigger themes, [much like “Elysium’s” attempt to deal with class warfare], in this case is voiced by the child-like robot who says, to Dev Patel playing the programmer (Deon Wilson) who built him [and has identified himself as the robot’s Maker], “My Maker wouldn’t make me just to die. Why did you just make me so I could die? I don’t want to die.” I could certainly relate to that, and so could Logan in “Logan’s Run,” now celebrating close to its 40th year on film.
Chappie was damaged while on line as Robot 22 and was scheduled to be scrapped, since his battery cannot be replaced, because it is now fused within his metal frame. Deon takes him out of the factory to work on creating a superior robot that can actually think and feel—a robot with human consciousness.
Of course, there is always a “bad guy” who views anything new and different as a threat and wants to destroy it without any effort to get to understand it. In this case, that individual is Hugh Jackman as Vincent Moore. Jackman’s character is not only jealous of the success of Dev Patel’s (Deon Wilson) scouts, he a bullying jerk. Half the time, his Aussie accent and expressions were as foreign as the thick accents of the South African thugs. Who has heard the expression, “You made me as cross as a frog in a sock?” Another Jackman line: “The whole thing is going tits up” I had heard—but not recently. I think you can see that, between the South African accents and setting and Jackman’s odd expressions, explanations are needed for a mere Midwesterner. And who “shadows” someone while driving a bright red truck?
It was easy to understand why Jackman is jealous that his large, ungainly, awkward prototype “Moose” (think Transformers) is not as big a success with the publicly traded weapons industry. When police administrators come for a demonstration, they actually say, “We don’t want this. It’s expensive, big and ugly.” Plus, Vincent’s funding keeps getting cut by Corporate CEO Sigourney Weaver as Michelle Bradley (who has a bit part about as wasted as her other sci fi venture as the Director in “The Cabin in the Woods.”)But Moose is Vincent Moore’s baby, so of course he is going to do everything in his power to undermine Deon Wilson’s (Dev Patel’s) work, even if it means bring total chaos to the city and destroying most of the fleet of hundreds of robot policemen.
The sub-plot and actors were fine by me, Boss, but some reviewers are crying crocodile tears about the casting of non-actors Yolandi Vi$$er and Ninja (real names: Anri du Tort and Watkin Tudor Jones) as “Mommy” and “Daddy” to Chappie. They are career criminals who badly need Chappie to help them earn $20 million in just one week, which has to do with a drug deal gone wrong and their need to repay the Boss Man, Hippo
.In real life, Yolandi and Ninja are vocalists in Die Antwood, a South African rap-rave group singing Zef, and appeared at Coachella.
The 30-year-old blonde Yolandi raps about working class white South Africans, (especially those in Cape Town), and has a child with her former partner, Ninja. In the film, the usually idle Yolandi has the Big Bright Idea of kidnapping Dev Patel, Chappie’s programmer, and getting him to work with them in turning Chappie into “the illest gangster on the block” but the criminals initially think “You gave me a retarded robot.” In fact, “Daddy” takes poor Chappie out into the world before he has become acclimated to it. Nor does Chappie have the worldly experience to understand what is happening or to protect himself. It Is a bit like throwing your small child into ten feet of water and urging him to “sink or swim.” Bad things happen.
In those heart-tugging scenes, I was reminded of Frankenstein’s Monster, who was mercilessly hunted by the townsfolk, or any other film about intelligent life visiting earth (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”) where there is always someone who wants to destroy what they cannot initially understand. Chappie survives and manages to find his way back to “Mommy” and the dilapidated abandoned factory where Yolandi apparently sits around all day smoking (she is seldom shown doing anything but waiting there, alone, for the others to return.)
Another philosophical discussion is about “being different.” It is raised by Chappie’s love of a book about a black sheep. There is also the discussion of life after death, which is discussed as “going to the next place.” You just know that some of Johnny Depp’s “Transcendence” mumbo-jumbo is going to work its way into the plot sooner or later—which is too bad, given how bad that film turned out to be.
In the meantime, however, you have a lot of shoot-‘em-out scenes and some interesting moralizing about whether it is right to engage in criminal behavior. (Chappie only does so when he is tricked into it by “Daddy.” I did begin to wonder if Daddy was right when he said that he had been given a retarded robot, because Chappie doesn’t seem to catch on very quickly to the basic dishonesty of the lead criminal). This group convinced me they could easily be underworld figures dealing drugs, among other crimes, and Yolandi has an interesting blonde, futuristic look, aided by a really unusual haircut.
I often wondered how Deon Wilson ( Dev Patel) could drop out of work so quickly, jump into company-owned vans, and rush off to work on his robot creation. It never worked that way for me in my jobs. Or how he could enter restricted areas after hours at the factory whenever he wished with little or no trouble. I finally decided that this weapons facility had the worst security in the world.
I almost needed sub-titles to be able to understand what Brandon Auret as ‘Hippo,” the rival head of another gang, was saying. It also seemed that the Moose, when that machine is finally pressed into service to keep the peace, was the chief weapon of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” Old Hippo the mob boss had way more lives than the 9 lives of most cats, and the heroic self-sacrificing of “Daddy” at a crucial moment late in the film seemed out of character for him, given what a sleazeball he was before that.
But, on the way to the finale of this 2-hour movie, I was thoroughly entertained by the multi-dimensional machine star, the fights, the office politics, and the moralizing about God and life and life after death and being different and child-rearing practices, among other sundry sub-topics. The film was very entertaining and I look forward to Blomkamp taking over the reboot of the “Alien” franchise as has been rumored is to occur.