You might have already seen the promos hit your television and jokingly thought to yourself, holy crap, Johnny Five is alive. And he’s all grown up. But that’s simply far from the truth. What you’re actually seeing is filmmaker Neil Blomkamp’s latest project Chappie. The South African director returns to his Johannesburg roots for this new science fiction picture set a few years from now where robotic police dubbed Scouts patrol the city streets. They can’t be persuaded, they can’t be reasoned with, they’re there to enforce and protect. That is until Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) creates Chappie, the first robot with a conscience.
Stories of artificial intelligence in film are nothing new – HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, freaking Skynet, Wall-E, I, Robot, The Matrix, Eagle Eye, the aforementioned Short Circuit, Transcendence, Her – the list goes on. But who the f cares that one story reminds you of another story. Every college kid starts his or her Sunday morning off at the cafeteria with “I got so wasted last night.” But we all still listen because we want to know how it’s going to end. It’s the same with movies: We want to know how a storyteller will rewrap something we somewhat know and make it their own.
Blomkamp’s inspiration stemmed from a mess-around show-reel project he conceived back in 2003, Tetra Vaal. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 1:20 spin; basically it’s a fake commercial with a parallel narrative that asks, what if robots were integrated into our police force? For the feature, writers Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell wove heart with action to explore the idea of when a robot would be considered human. The villain trying to stop it all from happening is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), an insecure engineer who would rather see his own weapon (dubbed “The Moose”) succeed, and will do anything to destroy Chappie. In the trailer, Vincent says, “The problem with artificial intelligence is that it’s way too unpredictable.” Couldn’t that be said for “real” intelligence?
What makes Blomkamp so prominent are the contrasts in his visuals. If you’ve seen District 9, you know what we’re talking about – he places otherworldly creatures and advanced technologies in today’s society as if they are matter of fact. It’s powerful because of its attached realism and exciting because we all secretly want it to happen. How freaking interesting would the holidays be if instead of talking about “how’s work been” we could sit around and reminisce about that time when aliens visited our planet to refuel or that you’re playing tennis with a robot because Karen is a “little tired.” Yes please.
To create Chappie, the director worked with visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey and Imagine Engine to design the computer version and with specialty prop effects supervisor Joe Dunckley to develop a physical prop. The team worked for two-and-a-half years fine-tuning the nuances of the robot before beginning production. To humanize the robot, Sharlto Copley (Vikus from District 9) played Chappie on set through motion capture. Blomkamp relied heavily on Copley’s performance, which would be later translated in post, but when they could, the team utilized one of the three prop skeletons of Chappie in scenes that didn’t require much performance, such as when Deon is working on him or when he’s powered down.
Also coming over from District 9 was cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who used the Red Epic with Panavision C, E and G lenses to capture the action. To record the set dialogue, sound mixer Ken Saville brought boom operators Bob Hazel and Clive Makhanya into the fold. For the film’s editing, Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt were taped to finalize picture before turning it over to supervising sound editor Craig Berkey and his dedicated team of audiophiles to add in their creative touches.
But what grabbed our attention is this film’s R rating. The way the trailer is cut, it doesn’t seem as such and the MPAA lists violence, language and brief nudity as their reasoning. Whatever the case of why, we’re glad Blomkamp got to make a film he wanted to make. Whether it’s good or not, we’ll have to wait and see. The Columbia Pictures release hits theaters March 6, 2015.