In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
James Cameron was way ahead of his time back in 1984 when he made “The Terminator.” A movie about an artificial intelligence defense network called Skynet which becomes self-aware and initiates a nuclear holocaust of all mankind, was both terrifying and original. Granted, there had been other movies before “The Terminator” involving A.I., “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Demon Seed” and “Wargames” but “The Terminator” took it to a whole new level of consciousness, so to speak. “Chappie” has most certainly borrowed from many of these movies but most notably, is the comparison to Cameron’s 1991 blockbuster follow-up, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” In that movie, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator T-800 robot is reprogrammed by John Connor (Edward Furlong) to not kill people but instead, to observe and learn about them and their behavior, all the while, keeping a newer, more advanced Terminator, the T-1000, from killing both John and his mother, Sarah Connor.
The interaction between man and machine was pivotal to the movie because while the Terminator would never achieve human consciousness, it would come very close and that is what is at the heart of “Chappie,” Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi thriller. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is a young-and-upcoming scientist who has created a mechanized police force for the city of Johannesburg, robots who are programmed to obey their makers. They are able to lead the charge into dangerous situations where humans would more than likely perish and in effect, they are saving lives. When Deon makes a scientific breakthrough that would, theoretically, allow a robot to obtain consciousness, therefore, allowing it to have the ability to think and learn for itself instead of being programmed, he takes it to his boss Michelle (Sigourney Weaver), who immediately rejects the idea and tells Deon to stick with his current task at hand.
After one of their robots is practically destroyed in a police shootout, Deon takes its remains and as he makes his way home so he can try his breakthrough on the machine, he is kidnapped by three thugs who eventually tell him that they want him to reprogram all of the city’s robots to obey their orders. He informs them that this cannot be done, that they’re all programmed from a central hub at police headquarters but when they find the robot in his van, they force him to put the robot together and after inserting the learning chip into his brain, Chappie, as he becomes known, comes to life. The three thugs, Ninja, Yolandi and Yankie, are not ruthless killers, they just happen to owe the city’s biggest crime lord more than $20 million and if they can’t pay him off, they will be killed, hence, their desperate need to have Chappie help and assist them in pulling off one last big heist.
Watching Chappie learn to speak from Deon, is the practical approach, like a father with a young baby but Ninja interjects with a flurry of “Motherfucker” and “Bitch” phrases that quickly become a part of Chappie’s vocabulary, much to Deon’s consternation. In one scene, Ninja drops Chappie off in a very bad part of town and leaves him there. He wants to make sure that he can take care of himself and find his way back home, especially if he’s to help them with their heist. In the following scenes, watching a terrified and frightened Chappie run away from being beaten and burned, really tugs at the heartstrings. At various points throughout the movie you find yourself initially wanting to roll your eyes at some of the syrupy and saccharine-filled emotions but then you remember, this isn’t a corny movie about a machine who thinks it is human, like Number 5 in “Short Circuit” or Jinx in “SpaceCamp,” Chappie IS human, apart from his cybernetic organism.
Hugh Jackman’s Vincent, a former hardened ex-soldier, works at the weapons company with Deon but he has a hidden agenda, he has his own creation, a large looming monstrosity of a machine he calls “Moose.” He wants nothing more than to rid the city of Deon’s pathetic robots so they can be replaced with his so when Deon goes AWOL with Chappie, the company gives Vincent the approval to use Moose in order to track them down and this, inevitably, leads to a confrontation between good and bad and the outcome, is far from conventional. I wasn’t a big fan of director Blomkamp’s previous two outings, “District 9″ and “Elysium” but with “Chappie,” he has created a world full of believable characters and none more than Chappie himself. When a director can make a movie where a robot achieves human consciousness and you can see and feel the frustration it is going through as it inhabits its new ‘self,’ then the director has done a praise-worthy job.
Chappie deals with the emotions all humans embody, happiness, sadness, anger and considering he has no facial expressions, the task was given to actor Sharlto Copley to articulate Chappie’s sentiments and he does so admirably. When one of the characters Chappie has come to love and care for is killed, Chappie exacts his revenge against the person responsible and we feel his anger, his rage and we are right up there on the screen alongside him, wanting to hurt this person. When he is scared, you just want to put your arm around him and let him know everything is going to be okay. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie where the most human character in the entire story, was a robot. I feel that audiences will come away from the film divided and that’s a shame because at its heart, “Chappie” is a simple love story about wanting to be accepted and wanting to be loved. And who doesn’t want that?
In theaters March 6th
For more info about James visit his website at www.IrishFilmCritic.com