March is the month of the unknown quantity. The period has, in recent years, become a testing ground of sorts for the big studios. Lingering awkwardly between summertime's tent-pole releases and the awards season's post-coital haze, it's the month to play your wilder cards. Neill Blomkamp’s third feature – an A.I. fable of nurture over nature starring Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord – does little to buck that trend. And of course, that’s not a bad thing at all.
A blistering first act introduces us to a chaotic future Johannesburg: the world’s first robotic police force, Deon, the man behind the machine (Dev Patel) and a pack of criminals with dayglo assault rifles (Yolandi, Ninja et al). The gang owes money, so they kidnap Deon for ransom, but the engineer only has Chappie, a deactivated robot, and his new A.I. software in tow.
And so the titular chap is born: an innocent blank canvas with a half-charged battery and an open, expressive face. We learn that Chappie's battery is fused to his (its?) chassis and that it will run out of juice in just five days. So we see his life play out in fast-forward: his first word, his rebellious adolescence, his first taste of mortality, and so on. Ninja wants to train him up to be a gangster, while Deon brings him gifts to broaden his mind. Ninja and Yolandi start to love their new surrogate son, and their mad cyberpunk hangout doubles as a surrealist nursery for him. It’s in these scenes that the film flourishes. Chappie soon picks up their dialect and mannerisms – their humanity perhaps. But of course the outside world intervenes.
The Johannesburg that Weta Workshop has crafted feels incredibly tactile, lived-in and real, and Hans Zimmer provides a dreamy, synth-heavy score. Best of all, however, the film marks a great homecoming for the young director. Blomkamp just seems tuned to the place, to the idea that violence and fear still linger and that Jo-Berg's history with the outsider is still unresolved.
Recent star clusters have suggested this director might soon be leaving the realm of original ideas for the Alien franchise. Savor such unknown quantities while ye can.
Chappie | Directed by Neil Blomkap (USA 2015) with Yolandi Visser, Ninja, Dev Patel. Starts March 5