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CHAPPIE is a cross between Pinicchio and ROBOCOP with a dash of DISTRICT 9. That last is unsurprising because CHAPPIE is the brainchild of Niell Blomkamp, and many of the elements at work in that earlier film about the meaning of humanity are at work in this one.
The battleground is still South Africa, Blomkamp’s native land, and in the near future, but instead of alien insects, it’s a newly sentient robot dubbed Chappie by Yolandi (Yo-landi Visser), the gangster chick who takes him under her oddly maternal wing. She’s also the one who had the idea of grabbing Chappie’s creator, Deon (Dev Patel) an AI nerd for Transvaal, the outfit supplying the robot cops to the Johannesburg police department. As Pope said, a little learning is a dangerous thing, and Yolandi has the bright idea of kidnapping Deon, who developed the robots and who, she is certain, can turn them all off, leaving her and her boyfriend Ninja (Ninja) and cohort Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) free to loot what they owe to a seriously dangerous gangster lord.
Alas, Deon created his robot cops without an off switch, but fortunately for him, he has his new prototype on him when he’s nabbed. The scene
of his attempts to explain the finer points of his anti-hacking precautions has its own charms, but the film doesn’t come to life until Chappie does. He comes into the world in a battered body that was destined for the compacter, and his mind is that of a baby, spurring those maternal feelings in Yolandi, and challenging Ninja with his sweet-natured innocence. Soon Chappie, who learns at a rate far swifter than that of an organic creature, is going through hero worship, teenage rebellion, and tackling metaphysical questions about the choices that his creator has made.
The violence of the underclass as assimilated by Chappie has elements of both suspense and absurdity, but always with an edge of melancholy as the strong oppress the weak. Hence, it’s best to take CHAPPIE as the fable that it is, with the usual tropes of a hero’s journey for both Chappie and Deon as they both lose their innocence about how the world really works. The subplot about Deon’s rival (Hugh Jackman), the gun-toting, god-fearing engineer whose own robotics project is stymied by Deon’s success is a bit glib, and the imagery a bit too obvious. This is especially true when contrasted with the marvelously sly way that the characters of Yolandi and Ninja are written, revealing depths that subvert expectations and damning society as much as they have damned themselves. If CHAPPIE succeeds at all, though, it’s because of the combination of poignant voice-work by Sharlto Copely as the spindly, self-aware machine, and the special effects that keep him mechanical, but allow him to not just move as fluidly as a human being, but also to be able to mimic the individual body language of different individuals. Then there are the two antennae on his head, shaped vaguely like rabbit ears, rotating independently as they convey emotion as well as pick up GPS. Sure, he’s a special effect, but he’s more realistic than Jackman’s character, or that of Sigourney Weaver’s ice queen of a corporate CEO. True, though, no one does ice queen better than Weaver.
CHAPPIE moves along at a good clip and certainly no film has ever done a better job of reproducing the anxiety of a coder waiting for his program to compile, with Deon’s eyes glued to his computer screen as the cursor flashes during the process. It’s also full of imaginative touches, such as the robot butler and plant who provide the home life for Deon, and the assertively whimsical style Yolandi exhibits both in dress and the profanely naïve graffiti with which she has decorated the gangster’s lair. That it’s located in an abandoned nuclear power plant is a wry touch of social commentary. As a whole, CHAPPIE is uneven, but irresistibly heart-tugging.
which Sharlto Copely providing the voice of the eponymous sentient robot