Technically auspicious and socially conscious as only writer-director Neill Blomkamp (2009's "District 9
" and 2013's "Elysium
") can be, "Chappie" is exceedingly easy to admire if a little more difficult to fully embrace. Imagining a near-future (as in, 2016) in which the world's first-ever robotic police force has begun to clean up the crime and corruption of South African city Johannesburg, Blomkamp and co-scribe Terri Tatchell use a "newborn" artificially intelligent being as metaphor forand microscope tothe learned behaviors and impressionable authority that inform early human development. The harsh brutality on display is unpleasant but works extraordinarily well as intended. Less comfortable is the molding of this heavy political attentiveness with the picture's broader aims as an action-oriented mass entertainment, the former attribute serving to drain much of the warmth and joy out of the act of watching the film.
The evolution of android technology has happened much faster than pundits could have possibly predicted, but the creation of one such model built with the specific purpose of law enforcement has begun to silence the Johannesburg slugs of its out-of-control criminality. Although the company involved, Tetravaal Robotics, appears to be thriving, the cost-cutting, status-hungry CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) continues to slash the lead developers' budgets while ramping up production requests. When Michelle shuts down designer Deon Wilson's (Dev Patel) potentially groundbreaking invention of a robot with intelligence surpassing that of humans, he privately snatches one of the damaged A.I.s being prepped for demolition to use as his testing subject.
Unfortunately, Deon's plans are intercepted by a gang of thugs led by Ninja (Ninja, playing a fictional version of himself), who are looking to shut down the police force so that they can pull off a heist that will fetch them the $20-million they desperately need to repay a debt. When they learn of the robot in the back of Deon's truck, they formulate a new plan to use the mechanical creature to help them in their thefts. This prototype of Deon's latest breakthrough creation, named Chappie, starts life with the emotional maturity of a baby, susceptive to the influences around him. As Deon and Ninja's empathetic girlfriend, Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), remain protective of Chappie's innocent, curious outlook, Ninja and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) set out to manipulate him into becoming a dangerous weapon during their heists. Meanwhile, back at Tetravaal, fellow lead developer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) begins to deviously plot against Deon when he (incorrectly) suspects his colleague's work has led to the company shaving his own research funding.
As with "District 9
" before it, "Chappie" continues Neill Blomkamp's cinematic obliteration of his homeland. Based on these two films, Johannesburg is depicted as a cutthroat, atrocity-fueled horror show so riddled with crime it is verging on the apocalyptic. It is a grimy location, then, that fits the bill for Chappie's "birth" into a cruel and unfair world that does its best to destroy his goodness. Watching his ever-altering evolvement from someone who loves storybooks and art and doesn't want to hurt anybody to someone who is brainwashed by negative forces is alarming to witness. As voiced and performed via motion-capture technology that allows for animation to replicate his body movements, Sharlto Copley (2014's "Maleficent
")and the wizardry involved in seamlessly actualizing himis the top reason to see the film. Chappie's face may be immobile, but he is bursting with life and a personality that could put to shame plenty of human actors working today. Most impressive of all, he doesn't remotely, for even a second, feel like a computer-generated figure; this is some of the most astonishing effects work in recent memory.
The live-action cast is a bold mix of international stars, each one up to the task but, in a few cases, underutilized all the same. Dev Patel (2010's "The Last Airbender
") is sympathetic as Deon, returning to visit Chappie and dismayed by the changes he sees in him. Why Deon is free to come and go as he pleases without Ninja and his gang showing concern that he could go to the authorities about their illegal operations is never adequately explained. Ninja and the uniquely watchable Yolandi Visser (portraying same-named characters) are excellent, their top-notch work all the more fascinating with the knowledge that they aren't experienced actors, but members of South African rap group Die Antwoord. As the vindictive Vincent Moore, Hugh Jackman (2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past
") doesn't quite disappear behind his character's unfortunate mullet, but it is not for a lack of trying. Jackman is committed and convincing playing against-type as the heavy, but the part is too thinly written to buy into his motives and actions. Sigourney Weaver (2014's "Exodus: Gods and Kings
") gets a handful of scenes as CEO Michelle Bradley, positioned at the onset as a ferocious, no-nonsense force, but she is off screen for long periods and not enough is done with her by the end.
"Chappie" closely approximates what Neill Blomkamp might have done if he had been assigned to helm a remake of 1987's "RoboCop." It also proves that he would have done an altogether better job than what ultimately became of 2014's miserable redux
of Paul Verhoeven's smartly satiric original. Inspired by Blomkamp's short film, "Tetra Vaal," "Chappie" has a lot going on just beneath its exterior, but as a thinking-person's big-budget action/sci-fi offering its messages aren't always consistent. Is Blomkamp for or against the technological advancements of robotics and their integration into the real world? On the one hand, the picture explores the toxicity of modern humanity while, at the same time, pleading its case that artificial intelligence is unnecessary as long as actual living and breathing people are capable of fulfilling the same jobs and duties. Blomkamp deeply cares about Chappie, just as the viewer grows to, but does this mechanized title character deserve us in all of our flaws and callousness? "Chappie" is too pessimistic to fully warm up to it, but it leaves its audience enthralled and pondering the story's deeper, albeit mixed, implications.