Movie Review: “Chappie” Examines Artificial Intelligence, Gangster Style

What if artificial intelligence could be used to create a robot that thinks and feels on its own? What if that robot was then kidnapped and taught to get all gangsta with it? These questions form the basis of a funny, futuristic action thriller called “Chappie,” starring Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and Sharlto Copley.

From writer-director-digital effects guru Neil Blomkamp, “Chappie” is perhaps less thematically resonant than his breakout hit, “District 9,” which also envisioned a dystopian South Africa, but still has enough boisterous action sequences, colorful characters and CGI wizardry to please the average moviegoer. Even though the screenplay is a little on the formulaic side and the novelty of the premise wears thin around the midpoint, Blomkamp’s deft and often humorous handling of a fascinating subject is enough to recommend strolling through the slums with this lovably thugged out robot.

Set in a crime-ridden Johannesburg of the near future, where humans are policed by oppressive robots called Scouts, “Chappie” tells the story of their creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a brilliant young scientist at a security company called Tetra Vaal. Although Deon is the brains of the operation – much to the dismay of his fellow mullet-wearing scientist, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) – he isn’t thrilled with the dictatorial manner in which his technology is being used. Wanting to improve upon the flawed original, Deon creates a microchip that turns Scouts into sentient beings, enabling them to develop morals and become humane peace officers instead of vicious automatons. Unfortunately, since his money-minded boss (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t want to tinker with their proven business formula, Deon is forced to test his innovation behind closed doors.

After stealing an unprogrammed Scout from the lab, Deon is poised to make his technological breakthrough when he’s suddenly kidnapped at gunpoint by Ninja and Yo-Landi (the South African hip hop group, Die Antwoord), two low-level thugs trying to dig their way out of debt with a local gangster. But once these wacky bottom feeders get a look at the robot, which they dub Chappie, and what Deon is up to with it, they snatch it away from him and teach it all sorts of “ill gangsta sh**.” While Deon struggles to regain control of Chappie and use it for more benevolent purposes, his microchip is stolen by his Tetra Vaal nemesis, Vincent, who has some especially evil ideas in mind.  

As he demonstrated with “District 9” and, to a lesser extent, “Elysium,” writer-director Neil Blomkamp has a talent for combining thought-provoking subject matter with eye-popping spectacle, and also seamlessly blending live action with CGI.  Along with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, Blomkamp plausibly presents this futuristic Johannesburg as a seedy wasteland decimated by crime, and editor Julian Clarke keeps the action within moving along at a nice clip. And while “Chappie” isn’t quite on the same level of social consciousness as his previous films, it does raise some stimulating questions about the nature of freewill in an increasingly mechanized world.

Despite suffering from a formulaic third act, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell’s screenplay nicely offsets the heavy subject matter with humor and explosive action scenes, highlighted by a wild freeway heist and a hilarious montage of Chappie testing out his carjacking skills.

Playing the titular robot with a heart (and necklace) of gold, Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) works wonders in a layered motion-capture performance that goes a long way in adding credibility to the premise. As Chappie’s creator and the film’s emotional backbone, Dev Patel is superb in a deeply sympathetic performance, and Hugh Jackman adds some maniacal menace as Patel’s scientist adversary. But the real standouts of “Chappie” are the eccentric hip hop duo Die Antwoord, who basically play themselves and hijack every scene they’re in, the soundtrack included. To see “Chappie” is to enter their wonderful world of weirdness. Proceed with caution.

By Lucas Mirabella

Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity.

Running Time: 120 minutes

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