‘Chappie’ filmmaker Neill Blomkamp takes creative vision to the edge

March 06, 2015 | 5:00 a.m.
la ca 0223 chappie 015 ‘Chappie’ filmmaker Neill Blomkamp takes creative vision to the edge

The Moose and Chappie (Sharlto Copley) in battle in a scene from "Chappie." (Columbia Pictures)

la ca 0223 chappie 020 ‘Chappie’ filmmaker Neill Blomkamp takes creative vision to the edge

Ninja (Ninja), left, Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Chappie (Sharlto Copley) in a scene from "Chappie." (Columbia Pictures)

la ca 0223 chappie 017 ‘Chappie’ filmmaker Neill Blomkamp takes creative vision to the edge

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) and Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) in a scene from "Chappie." (Columbia Pictures)

Neill Blomkamp is a young filmmaker comfortable with risk.

For his third feature, “Chappie,” in which gangsters gain custody of a robot endowed with artificial intelligence, the writer-director set out to craft a violent fairy tale about the very meaning of consciousness. And to anchor his South African-set tale, he cast the elaborately tattooed cult rappers Die Antwoord, a duo long on underground credibility but short on mainstream visibility.

“You’ve got to run equations in your head, not financial equations, but equations of accessibility — at what degree do you think it’s too far or it isn’t too far,” Blomkamp said in Santa Monica late last year. “The idea of Die Antwoord in a movie, you’re on the outer peripheral edge there. To set it in South Africa, also, you’re pushing it. But I felt that the core story was human enough and cool enough that a global audience would get it.”

With “Chappie” arriving in theaters Friday, Blomkamp soon will have the opportunity to determine whether his cinematic risk-taking will pay off. Regardless of how the movie fares at the box office, however, “Chappie” certainly will underscore his reputation as a meticulous visual craftsman interested in Big Ideas. He’s the latest in a long tradition of auteurs to use speculative science fiction to chronicle contemporary ills.

A Vancouver transplant by way of Johannesburg, Blomkamp announced himself as a major new talent with his 2009 feature-length debut, “District 9.” A powerful examination of the apartheid era through a sci-fi lens, the film earned four Oscar nominations — including best picture — and more than $115 million at the domestic box office.

His follow-up, 2013’s dystopian thriller “Elysium,” starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, tackled class disparity, immigration and ecological cataclysm with a narrative that saw the world’s wealthiest 1% living in luxury aboard an orbiting space station while the rest of humanity suffered on a ravaged Earth.

Sharlto Copley stars as Chappie. (Columbia Pictures)

Sharlto Copley stars as Chappie. (Columbia Pictures)

Far less overtly political than its predecessors, “Chappie” does reflect Blomkamp’s interest in the arena of artificial intelligence, but rather than some sort of cautionary tale about out-of-control technology, he conjured a fable about innocence finding a way to survive a corrupt and hostile world — punctuated with torrents of automatic gunfire.

“There is no other filmmaker quite like him in all of the different things he combines and collides in his movies,” said “Chappie” producer Simon Kinberg.

“You have movie stars and big visual effects and robots and all the trappings of a tent-pole film with settings, other kinds of cast, world creation that is not just the brightest, shiniest sides of the world.

“His movies have a very emotional, messy quality to them,” Kinberg added. “They’re not cold. They’re not purely intelligent. There’s a real humanity to them.”

It was during the making of “Elysium” that Blomkamp, 35, hit on the idea for “Chappie,” which draws on certain ideas from a two-minute short the filmmaker finished at age 23 when he was beginning a career in visual effects. He wrote the script for the new movie in just two weeks with Terri Tatchell, his longtime professional collaborator and wife.

“In that [short] there are these robotic defense droids, and I remember this really clearly,” Blomkamp said. “It was like 3 a.m. in my home office, and I was like, what if you wiped the mind of one of these robots and Die Antwoord raised this thing and it had the ability to learn, kind of like real strong artificial intelligence but raised by this somewhat dysfunctional family?”

Although the South African hip-hop duo had not previously appeared in a conventional film, the rave rappers are famous for provocative videos and a singular artistic aesthetic that has attracted prominent followers. (Yo-Landi Visser was reportedly one of David Fincher’s top candidates to star in his English-language version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” before Rooney Mara won the role of punk hacker Lisbeth Salander.)

Deon (Dev Patel) boots up Chappie (Sharlto Copley) in a scene from "Chappie." (Columbia Pictures)

Deon (Dev Patel) boots up Chappie (Sharlto Copley) in a scene from “Chappie.” (Columbia Pictures)

“They have a real anarchic sensibility that seems to come from an honest place,” Blomkamp said. “I think they are a complete antidote to anything that feels mass produced or is controlled by a system that isn’t governed by artists. … There’s a weirdness and mystique about them. I knew that would come through on-screen.”

Visser and her partner Ninja play versions of themselves in “Chappie” — their characters share their names, but rather than professional musicians, they’re criminals living in a remote urban den of concrete and spray paint. After kidnapping a gifted robotics engineer (Dev Patel), they find themselves in possession of Chappie and soon are training the sentient droid to aid them in a heist.

Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman appear in small roles — Weaver as the president of the weapons firm where Patel’s Deon is employed; Jackman as a rival programmer and former soldier determined to advance his own inventions.

Sharlto Copley, who has starred in each of Blomkamp’s features, played the title character using a version of performance capture — during filming, he wore a gray Lycra suit that delivered lighting information to technicians who later animated Chappie on top of the actor in each scene.

Although the movie came together quickly, Blomkamp said that he found the production, which took place in South Africa during the latter half of 2013, emotionally taxing.

“I don’t really like shooting in general,” he said. “Part of not enjoying it is that for me, from a creative place, I felt like by the time I was done with ‘Chappie,’ I was kind of done with Johannesburg. Those themes and those topics have kind of run their course for me. Separately, not as an artist, just as a human being, I don’t like how violent [the city] is. I’ve just had enough. My favorite thing in the world used to be razor wire and police choppers and urban sprawl and pollution. Now because I’m older, I just don’t like it.”

If “Chappie” represents the final piece in a thematic triptych, Blomkamp’s next career phase won’t take him too far afield. He is set to write and direct a fifth film in the venerable “Alien” franchise for Fox with Weaver again playing heroine Ellen Ripley.

Calling from New York this week, Blomkamp said that in some ways he was adopting a new approach for his next feature.

“It’s not my job to take a bunch of my own ideas and stuff them into ‘Alien’ and bend ‘Alien’ around them,” he said. “It’s more like I’m participating in an arena that has a very particular tone and actually has a bunch of ingredients in it that I love so much to make me want to work in that franchise.”

Some things, though, like his penchant for risk-taking and his uncompromising commitment to his artistic vision, are unlikely to waver.

“I think it’s really important for me to maintain authorship over the film. I feel like it’s mine and that the artwork never fully escaped my hands,” he said. “I don’t really think of myself as a movie director much at all. I put a lot of effort into things that I get a lot of creative reward out of that other directors maybe don’t care about as much — I spend more time in departments, from wardrobe and set design maybe more than normal.

“We’ll see how long I’ll be in Hollywood.”

— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


One Response to ‘Chappie’ filmmaker Neill Blomkamp takes creative vision to the edge

  1. @HeatherEnid says:

    Five Stars! 2 Thumbs Up! Thank you Neil Blomkamp for sharing your creative mind with the world. Chappie is a brilliant excellent film! It's engaging, beyond solid acting, funny, terrific soundtrack. Chappie is truly thought-provoking and heart-affirming.
    I appreciate films that are layered/more than one-dimensional.
    And Chappie goes deep, all the way to the soul!

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