Neill Blomkamp knocked us out for six back in 2009 with his stunning debut District 9. An edgy, gritty, nail biting (or not) kind of film, set in Johannesburg about a man’s ability to change his opinions and, as it turns out, his body too. With its tiny budget but impressive special effects, this tragic tale opened the wide gates of Hollywood to Mr Blomkamp as he stepped into the limelight.
Four years later he returned with Elysuim which in my opinion, was Blomkamp’s attempt at playing it safe. It had a bigger budget, action, romance, drama… even Matt Damon! – but was an ant under the mighty boot that was District 9. With characters I wasn’t overly attached to and a lack of a need to cover your eyes when teeth weren’t falling out, what was thought to be Blomkamp’s magic, may have been misplaced.
Skip to 2015, the end of March to be precise and I find myself sat waiting to watch his third film, Chappie. Whilst under the knowledge that Blomkamp has signed up to direct the next Alien movie, a franchise that is/can be at times, a personal favorite of mine, I am hoping and praying that his latest venture can prove that the next Alien film will be just as good as the original two.
Skip forward two hours and the credits roll to the sound of South African rap due Die Antwoord (Ninja & Yo-Landi) who play themselves (in a way) in the movie. How am I feeling?… Very optimistic!
Chappie (mo-capped and voiced by the District 9 lead, Sharlto Copley) is a police robot who is given artificial intelligence by his unit’s manufacturer Deon (Dev Patel). Briefly afterwards he is taken by Ninja and Yo-Landi in an attempt to use him to help pay off their measly $2 million debt to the big bad of Johannesburg.
Initially having the mental state of a child who must be taught about the world he has been brought into, the film sees Chappie learn about the world and his place in it which in this case, is the home of a trio of gangsters.
With a comedic integration into the gang (earning his tattoos and bling), there is a mirrored learning curve by his surrogate mother Yo-Landi and creator Deon, who teach him to read and paint and become more than just a machine.
What Blomkamp manages to do in Chappie is to give the character heart and make him feel real. As he struggles to find his place in the world you want to get out of your seat and help him; and when he does find his place – you want nothing more than to hang out with him. As an odd comparison, think of him as Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon; both spectacle and something you wish you could have in your life.
Blomkamp’s casting of Hugh Jackman as jealous-Aussie-rival-robot-creator Vincent is also magnifique, a role the Jackman slips into perfectly.
For me, this film set out to show Blomkamp’s heart of character whilst referring and sticking closely to an edgy and dirty South African style that worked so well in District 9 but doesn’t exploit it so that it feels like a clone. It builds up a relationship between the characters in a complex way where you start to wonder why you like these low-life characters so much. And most importantly there’s an element of depth to think about afterwards (SPOILER) [always wanted to have to write that] where he even delves into the concept of transcendence and the limit of an AI without us worrying about it taking over the world, and in fact, wanting to save it.(END OF SPOILER)
So in my books, as a mid-week, clever, action filled, heart-felt and visually stunning film to watch (or cover your eyes to) – it gets 5 stars from me and goes straight onto the short list of Blu-rays I wish to own.
What I now hope for, is that he takes this fast and quick learning curve in Hollywood – and makes the first decent Alien movie in 29 years (not that Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection were wholly terrible… but that’s a debate for another time…)