Film Review Director Neill Blomkamp has recovered from his Elysium stumble with this cross between Pinocchio, Short Circuit and Robocop, which brings a whole lot of heart to the dystopian AI future trope.
Like so many tales of the future, Chappie takes place in a city on the verge of tearing itself apart, where criminals can lay their hands on rocket launchers and hand grenades as easily as guns and throwing stars.
The cops in this very near future Johannesburg, rather reminiscent of the same decaying ghetto city of District 9, are fighting a losing battle until the typically profit-obsessed robot firm Tetra Val comes along with its scout droids. There’s no mercy for the gangsters once these relatively intelligent bots are on the scene, virtually indestructible and armed to the electric teeth, they quickly turn the tide on crime in the city.
The droids’ maker Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) doesn’t want to stop there, however, he has ambitions to make the world’s first full artificial intelligence. Naturally, the corporate types at Tetra Val, led by Sigourney Weaver’s CEO Michelle Bradley, couldn’t give a damn about progress or science, they only care about their bottom line. So when Deon comes to Michelle requesting an old droid to experiment on, she refuses.
An inspirational kitten poster drives Deon to steal the robot parts anyway so he can install his fledgling AI, but unfortunately for him, this is the very day that a group of desperate gangsters have decided to kidnap the famous robotmaker to get him to tell them how to turn the police droids off.
Meanwhile, Deon’s rival at work, Vincent, played with gleeful relish by Hugh Jackman, wants to discredit the droids and get his own terrifying overkill Moose bot on the job.
Blomkamp delivers all the must-haves for an AI film – the assurances that the droids can’t be hacked or manipulated (in the shape of a guardkey that has to be installed before software upgrades), the short-sighted profit hungry corporation and the dystopian gun-filled future. But he’s smart enough to flip a few of your preconceptions on their head.
When the gangsters decide to take Chappie in lieu of the non-existent “remote” that could turn all the police droids off, they don’t get a fully-fledged superintelligent robot, but a child that they have to teach and train. While a frantic Deon tries to instil morals in his machine, the gangsters are trying to raise a warrior and ignore their instinctual impulse to nurture and protect a child.
It’s not the robots that get things wrong in this future vision and it’s not just the greedy corporation, it’s the humans – and not always the bad guys, either.
Blomkamp isn’t interested in a movie about whether AI is possible, this is a film about the complexity of human nature and the likelihood that any other sentient race we create would be just as complicated and as mired in the moral shades of grey as we are.
But Chappie isn’t a sermon – there’s plenty of action and Johnny5esque laughs too, making for a heartfelt, entertaining sci-fi flick. ®
Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp
Cast Sharlto Copley, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Watkin Tudor Jones, Dev Patel, Yolandi Visser, Sigourney Weaver
Release date 6 March (UK/US)
More info Movie website