Wednesday, 11 March 2015


Sony Pictures

Essentially the Pinocchio story in sci-fi plating, Neill Blomkamp's third feature asks the question integral to most science fiction: what does it mean to be human? Or in the case of Chappie, the titular police robot turned sentient being, when does a machine's evolution lend it human status?

In 2016 South Africa, law enforcement is conducted by robot police produced by the Tetravaal Corporation (headed by Sigourney Weaver). Their creator is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who is on a personal mission to create artificial intelligence; one that will grow, learn and evolve as any human would. And into the 900th-odd day of his experiments, the idealistic young Dr. Frankenstein succeeds.

But like any birth, Chappie's is complicated and bloody. Within moments of making his breakthrough, Deon is abducted by a trio of low-level gangsters -- Ninja, Yolandi (their actual names; members of South African hip hop group, Die Antwoord) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) -- who have hit on the idea of taking one of the robot police officers for themselves to do their criminal bidding. And who better to help bend (i.e. reprogram) one to their will then the creator?

Thus Chappie (an impressive motion capture performance by Blomkamp mainstay, Sharlto Copley) is born in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of Soweto, where his low-life family who take charge of the robot's education will also wrestle with the robot's growing humanity, and their own consciences.

Blomkamp, again working from his own screenplay as he did with his impressive debut, District 9 (2009), and not quite so impressive follow-up, Elysium (2013), throws so much into the mix -- including Hugh Jackman's anti-A.I. ex-soldier -- that most of the working elements of Chappie are easily lost among the spare parts. With nods to so many other films -- Robocop, Short Circuit, Metropolis -- and the aforementioned literary influences, Blomkamp's film could easily be dismissed as pastiche. Like Chappie himself, the film is a hodge-podge of bits and bobs and not all of them well oiled or firing on all cylinders.

The star of the film is of course Chappie. Copley invests the robot with such innocence, wonder and heart that it's hard not to care for the little guy (once the initial Jar Jar Binks fears dissipate). While not quite in the Andy Serkis-Gollum-Caesar league of performance, it's a nonetheless impressive mix of voice acting, motion capture and CGI. Artificial intelligence may still be a ways off (as far as we know), but the future is now in film making.

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