There is an ‘all that glitters is not gold’ moral here: Unheralded South African director Neill Blomkamp caught everyone’s eye with his confronting futuristic drama District 9 (2009).
As so often is the case, its success resulted in his being lured to Hollywood where, with a quadrupled budget, he came up with the less challenging Elysium, a blockbuster in which CGI typically took precedence over the sort of dark, worrying narrative that drove D9.
Back in Johannesburg again, with much less money at his disposal, he has returned to form.
The inhabitants of the city (in reality, Joh’burg is one of the world’s most violent) are kept in check by squads of police robots, including the astonishingly believable Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley).
When Chappie is captured by ‘gangsta’ drug dealers, Blomkamp, without foregoing the thrills and spills expected from the genre, is able to take his story to a philosophical level rarely attempted in mega-bucks sci-fi flicks.
Intelligence – artificial or otherwise – love and learning, identity, creation itself all come under the spotlight as Chappie becomes aware of his own being, and his shelf-life.
So convincing is the walking-talking hunk of metal that the scene in which he is beaten up by street thugs elicits genuine despair (I was more distressed by it than I would have been if Chappie were a normal flesh-and-blood screen hero).
From there, the battered Chappie staggers to a junkyard where his encounter with a stray dog is in every way as poignant as when Frankenstein’s monster found comfort in the cabin of the blind peasant.
This is a fabulous movie that manages the perfect balance between brawn and brain and in which Blomkamp is handsomely rewarded by exceptional performances from his big-name stars – Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman (fantastic as the bullying Aussie tech-head) – and local actors alike.
Yo-Landi Visser, ‘Mummy’ to Chappie, is adorable and it is only fitting that she is the focus of an end shot that pays rightful homage to Avatar.
~ John Campbell