A look back at this under-appreciated, yet full-carnaged, sci-fi action thriller.

OpenAI and its peers are making big waves as of this writing, and 2015’s action-packed treatise of artificial consciousness, Chappie, has never been more relevant. The film was director Neil Blomkamp’s closure of his informal Sci-Fi actioner trilogy, and until he creates his next masterpiece, we always have Chappie and its predecessors, so let’s have a look!

Arms corporation Tetravaal builds and operates the Scouts, a squad of police droids deployed to combat crime in Johannesburg. Tetravaal engineer Deon (Dev Patel) develops an artificial intelligence and tests it on a decommissioned Scout unit. The droid (named Chappie) is stolen by gangster Ninja who seeks to exploit Chappie’s superhuman combat skills for a heist. To make things worse, Deon’s jealous co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman) sets a sinister plan in motion to push his own product line of assault mechs.

We’ll Turn That Robot Into The Illest Gangster On The Block

Once again Blomkamp immerses us into a world of cruelty and injustice, with arms corporations being the biggest profiteers of rampant crime and poverty. This setup echoes Robocop, and there are more similarities with it, not least the question whether human consciousness can be embedded into a droid body. Chappie is far from being a copycat of genre classics, though, but is overflowing with ideas of its own.

A central part of the film is a re-visitation of the nature vs. nurture debate, exemplified by Chappie with his malleable child-like mind and basic programming as a violent police robot. Blomkamp succeeds in creating a robot character that we genuinely care for, who moves us to tears and for whom we sincerely hope everything will turn out fine in the end. But maybe it wouldn’t work so well without Sharlto Copley’s fantastic voice acting who breathes life into this droid like probably no one else could.

Gritty and Colorful, Absurd and Thoughtful

Chappie’s animation is perfect, even by today’s standards. It’s seamlessly integrated into the real world, and is a great example for a case where good use is made of CGI. Immersion is conserved when a small part of the image is artificial and the majority is real, and not the other way around, as is too often the case in modern action cinema, unfortunately.

Ninja and Yolandi Visser of the South African band Die Antwoord in their first acting roles are pretty much playing themselves as Chappie’s foster parents. It’s a bold move but it works out beautifully, both bring a refreshingly anarchic style to their scenes. On the other side Dev Patel impresses as well-meaning modern Frankenstein, who tries to be empathetic and reflective about his work as can be when you’re working for a weapons corporation. The dark side of the company is personified by Hugh Jackman’s fun take on an aggressive engineer (with a five-dollar haircut) who is hellbent on climbing the career ladder no matter the collateral damage.

Our Own Indestructible Robot Gangster Number One, Boom!

The slums of Johannesburg are not a pretty place yet it’s what our characters call home. The cinematography is top notch, and captures this gritty and violent world in atmospheric images,  supported by banging soundtrack. Blomkamp juggles social commentary, the nature of consciousness and throws in some kick-ass action when it’s time to stop thinking too hard and enjoy some good old mayhem. He demonstrates once more why he is a master of crafting gripping and exciting action sequences. Each one has a small story to tell, and never becomes self-indulgent.

Carnage lovers will also not be disappointed. Gangsters and killer robots clash in bloody shootouts, people are ripped apart and carjackings spiral out of control, with Chappie causing a good deal of mostly unintentional havoc on his own. With Chappie, Blomkamp holds a mirror to us, when – just like as in District 9 – a non-human embodies what the best traits of humanity should be. This film is  an emotional roller-coaster ride that delivers action-packed and intelligent storytelling at its best!