Chappie: Short Circuit gets a reboot?

Johnny Five is very much alive. Apologies to kids of the ’90s, this reference to the 1986 film Short Circuit will be lost on you.

What I’m trying to say is that Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie doesn’t feel like it’s hugely treading new ground when it comes to exploring artificial intelligence, but it’s quite a fun experience nonetheless.

We start with genius programmer Dion (Dev Patel) working for a South African company called Tetravaal who produce robotic police officers known as scouts. They’ve been instrumental in helping keep the crime rate down in Johannesburg, a city on the edge of slipping into chaos.

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Through a series of events Dion acquires a robot due for scrap and manages to install his newly developed artificial intelligence system into him. Around the same time he’s thrown together with some local gangsters who want to use the robot for their own ends.

Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Put forward by Descartes in the Principles of Philosophy in 1644 and, in recent years, has been tackled and toyed with by filmmakers, particularly in terms of humanity’s uneasy relationship with artificial intelligence. As we develop things designed to make our lives easier we’re becoming increasingly attached to the very things that are meant to help set us free. Who’s to say we won’t become even more dependent on technology like advanced AI, when it develops?

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And specifically with the case of Chappie, learn to love robots like they’re children and part of our family. A large part of the film’s first half deals with this notion and it’s probably where it comes across strongest, as there’s a lot of warmth and humour there.

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) as a character seems somewhere between a pet and a child, constantly learning and enthusiastic. His performance (and dialogue) largely set to ‘dog mode’. Chappie do this, Chappie go there, Chappie has been a good boy, yes! It’s fairly charming and endearing, but we’re still firmly in Johnny Five territory.

Sticking the moral (but childlike) Chappie in with a bunch of gangsters is a nice idea, and the comedic situations work well. The problems occur when the film moves into more traditional action territory. And this is where you feel that so much time has been spent on Chappie and the characters immediately around him, that supporting characters get rather short shrift.

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Particularly Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman’s characters. They do their best but they’re lumbered with thinly drawn parts, clunky dialogue and – at times – rather ludicrous scenarios where their decisions are as baffling as the situation (particularly Jackman, who seems to be kitted out to look like Aussie crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, complete with bush outfit and a fearsome mullet).

As films go Neil Blomkamp set his own bar almost unsettlingly high with his debut District 9. Each of his films that followed this primarily explored similar themes, but with diminishing returns.

However, that said, there’s really nothing wrong with Chappie. It’s fun and entertaining, but given the subject matter it could have been so much more. You get the sense Blomkamp was more interested in exploring a situation where a childlike robot with a moral compass gets raised by gangsters (like some sort of ghetto Mowgli), than really mining the depths of consciousness, artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

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This is evident in the film’s final third, which rushes through key sections almost like an afterthought. The same sort of thing happened in Luc Besson’s Lucy with Scarlet Johansson. Although, if we’re talking a more sophisticated handling of AI, you’re probably better off watching the film she did with Joaquin Phoenix, Her. Or more recently Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Hell, even I, Robot.

But before this descends into a Chappie bashing (which he gets enough of in the film), this movie is warm, its heart is in the right place and it’s engaging for the most part. And despite other characters not getting the love they deserve in the script, Copley keeps us hooked in, making us care about Chappie’s fate.

All in all, though, this isn’t a classic take on the genre, or even classic Blomkamp, but it’s entertaining enough and worth your time… for Copley’s plucky performance if nothing else.

Will the real Gary Oldman please stand up?

drexl-spivey-true-romanceGary Oldman isn’t the original bad boy. That title would probably go to James Dean or someone similar. But, at least in terms of myself growing up, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for good old Gary in concentrated psycho mode. Obviously there’s Leon, but specifically I’m thinking Drexl in True Romance – sheer scene stealing brilliance.

And I imagine most of the guys I’ve listed below look up to Oldman, wishing their careers would follow a similar path. Indeed, Tom Hardy openly said so in interviews when he was just starting out. So, if Gary was in the room right now he’d probably graciously tilt his head to young chaps following in his mad and intense footsteps. At least, I like to think so. Either that or he’d throw his Chinese food at them and launch an insane attack in their direction. God bless him.

Here are the guys I think deserve that subtle Oldman head tilt:

James Franco as Alien (Spring Breakers)
Definitely mainlining pure essence of Drexl in Harmony Korine’s vacuous offering. Described by The Huffington Post as Scarface meets Britney Spears, Franco’s take on a wannabe rapper-cum-gangster is the film’s only redeeming quality. And that’s saying something when you’ve got Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson in bikinis for most of the movie.


Tom Hardy as Charlie Bronson
(Bronson)
Fearsome and frightening, even more so when naked and covered in white paint. Hardy is probably one of the best out there at the moment when it comes to intensity. A phenomenal and unrelenting performance as one of Britain’s most notorious criminals in Nicholas Winding Refn’s excellent (and somewhat underrated) film.


Sharlto Copley as Kruger
(Elysium)
Up to now he’s been the everyman trying to survive (District 9) and the funny man (The A-Team), so who knew Copley could do creepy and sadistic quite so well. In Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to 2009’s District 9, here Copley goes into full menace mode as mercenary agent hitman chappie, facing off against Matt Damon.


Paul Bettany as Young Gangster
(Gangster No. 1)
He does intense well, does old Paul. This film – which went largely under the radar in 2000 – had an impressive cast: David Thewlis, Eddie Marsan, Saffron Burrows and Malcolm McDowell. And don’t think ‘Young Gangster’ means his was a minor part, he drove the movie.


Vincent Cassell as Mesrine
(Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1)
Arguably a career-best performance from Vincent Cassel in this two-part film that came out in 2008, charting the life of one of France’s most notorious criminals, Jacques Mesrine. Over both films Cassel’s portrayal of Mesrine was both charismatic and unnerving in its ferocity.


Michael Shannon as Curtis
(Take Shelter)
To be honest, you can take pretty much anything from Shannon’s filmography: Boardwalk Empire, Man Of Steel, The Iceman – over the last few years he’s been building his reputation as Hollywood’s go-to guy for unpredictable and explosive rage.


Obviously there’s others out there that perhaps deserve that special Oldman head tilt, but that’ll do for now – enough intensity for one evening. Now… who’s for some Disney?