The Horror Honeys: JOHNNY FIVE IS GANGSTA

JOHNNY FIVE IS GANGSTA

A Sci-Fi Honey New Release Review by Katie

Chappie (2015)

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp is generating huge buzz in the sci-fi community right now, thanks to his recent Instagram announcement that he’ll be taking over as the creative force behind the next film in the Alien saga. The news is exciting because Blomkamp’s auspicious origins in the genre – 2009’s Best Picture-nominated District 9 – all but cemented his status as a sci-fi prodigy, someone with a fresh take on the visual and thematic concepts the genre has to offer. 

Backed by a bigger budget and bigger star (hello, Matt Damon) than his debut effort, Blomkamp ventured further into the sci-fi realm with 2013’s Elysium – but the film failed to make any meaningful impact on either critics or audiences. With his newest project, Chappie, Blomkamp has returned to his “Jo’Burg” roots of District 9, again filtering the devastation of urban crime and the racist aftermath of South Africa’s Apartheid era through a sci-fi lens.

So much crime, so little time to brood about it.
Johannesburg is currently one of the most notoriously dangerous cities in the world, and Blomkamp’s near-future vision of the city in Chappie is no different. Dev Patel plays a virtuoso engineer at Tetravaal, a weapons company whose tactical robots (let’s call them what they are – RoboCops) are utilized by the police force to combat crime. Patel’s real purpose, however, is to create a program that can simulate human consciousness in robots, producing the world’s first fully-sentient Artificial Intelligence. Standing in his way are Tetravaal’s CEO, (played by Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver), and Hugh Jackman’s militant-minded engineer, who’d rather create monstrous war machines that require human control to operate. When Patel is kidnapped by some petty gangsters (played by real-life South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord), he is able to install consciousness into a damaged RoboCop that was scheduled to be destroyed. Thus “Chappie” is born – played by District 9 star Sharlto Copley via motion-capture technology – and Die Antwoord and co. set out to use him for their own gain, teaching him to be “the illest gangsta on the block.” 

Lesson One: learning to fist-bump.
If any of this sounds familiar, and especially if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll definitely get shades of Short Circuit (1986), RoboCop (1987), and of course, Blomkamp’s own District 9. Short Circuit’s “Johnny Five” is echoed here in the form of Chappie’s Number 22, and both evolve from a childlike state to being able to comprehend the spectrum of human emotion. Jackman’s ostentatious human-powered weapons system resembles the ED-209 from RoboCop; Chappie himself comes from a line of law enforcement AI. But the biggest comparison that anyone is bound to make, especially if you’re a fan of Blomkamp’s first film, is all the ways that Chappie directly and indirectly references District 9. Both films open with documentary-like exposition alluding to the events to come, and both take us through the social and cultural problems plaguing the culturally vibrant metropolis of Johannesburg as well as its outlying slums. Chappie himself, with his giant-humanoid physique and curious antennae, bears more than a passing resemblance to the alien “Prawns” from District 9. Despite all the references to other works (including his own), Blomkamp maintains a uniquely creative energy that keeps the story and pacing of the film mostly on-point, save for a somewhat bumpy shoot-em-up third act. 

Chappie goes bang bang!
I’m going to come right out and say it: District 9 is a fucking masterpiece. The fact that Chappie is not the magnum opus that is District 9 does not in and of itself make it a bad film. On the whole, Chappie accomplishes what it sets out to do: inform, and entertain. While the social context of the film is more muddled than it was in District 9, in both films Blomkamp manages to make the audience care about otherworldly beings and have sympathy for their subjugation in human society. In addition to that, it’s an enjoyable action-heist film with enough stylistic kitsch to make it a possible cult classic in the future. Chappie may not come anywhere near the brilliance of District 9, but there’s enough potential here to ensure I’ll be first in line for whatever the next Alien adventure brings.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Three-and-a-half gangsta robots out of five.