With Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Yo-Landi Visser. Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Rated by R for violence, language and brief nudity. 120 minutes.
CHAPPIE is a welcome addition to the long and rich history of the robot in science fiction films. Students of the genre will easily trace its many influences, with the original “Robocop” only being the most obvious of them. Nonetheless, as with “District 9,” director Neill Blomkamp (who co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell) gives it a fresh South African spin.
Deon (Dev Patel) is a brilliant robotics programmer and engineer. He has come up with the Scout series of robots which the Johannesburg police department has purchased in quantity to help the fight crime. The nearly indestructible robots have made a difference.
That’s good for Deon, and for Tetravaal, the company that makes the robots that’s run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). That’s not so good for his colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman), an ex-soldier who has created a robot called “Moose” which is more of a military weapon. Vincent’s budget has been cut and his boss keeps telling him to cut Moose back, not add more to it.
Deon has been working on his own time on coming up with a program for “artificial intelligence,” which would allow a robot to think and learn independently. He’s about to try it out on a defective robot headed for the junk heap when he crosses paths with a trio of drug dealers headed up by Ninja (played by South African musician Ninja) and Yolandi (played by by his wife and fellow musician Yo-Landi Visser). They end up with the sentient robot that Yolandi dubs “Chappie” (voice of Sharlto Copley) and now the complications really begin.
As with most such stories, Chappie allows us to see our humanity through artificial (or alien) eyes. “Why do you do such things?” he asks in despair at one point. Like Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and other such “innocent” robots, he’s trying to learn our ways and is baffled by them. Deon makes him promises never to commit a crime even though he’s being held by a drug gang. Ninja convinces him to steal cars by telling him that he’s simply taking back cars that had been stolen from him.
As the various plots play out–with plenty of shootings and explosions–the competing agendas of the various characters affect each other. Chappie wanting to please both his “Maker” (Deon) and his “Mommy” (Yolandi) ultimately has to go from robot-child to robot-adult and take control of his own destiny.
Blomkamp graduated to working with big stars when he went from “District 9” to his second film, “Elysium” (2013) with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, but now–with his third feature–he seems comfortable with balancing Hollywood with South Africa. His constant collaborator, Sharlto Copley, provides the voice of Chappie, while Weaver and Jackman have key, if supporting, roles.
“Chappie” provides plenty of action, strong dollops of humor, and touches on the usual questions expected in stories of humans and robots interacting, but it also raises some questions–which it doesn’t pretend to answer–on the nature of human consciousness and the soul. So whether you just want to see a lot of things explode or you like your science fiction with wit and intelligence, the memorable “Chappie” should shake you out of your winter doldrums.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.