“Chappie” My Fair Robot
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Sci-Fi fans, techno geeks, open-minded moralists, dabblers in sociology and gamers should all find common ground in director Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie,” a slightly rambling but nonetheless satisfying conjecture on the possibilities of artificial intelligence. Gritty but often sweet, and as explosive as any modern special effects-laden film when the plot arrives at the push comes to shove part, where it mostly excels is in the philosophical, gray areas of human and robotic ethics.
Begging the title character’s pardon for any unintended gender implication, “Chappie” is a silicon chip off the old “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady” block. It is again that ominously close near-future and droids are being used in Johannesburg as semi-indestructible complements to the police force. There, a foul group of gangsters, South African style, hatches the idea they might be able to power-down the metallic cops pretty much the same way you shut a TV. They figure all they need is a remote control.
So they kidnap Dion, a brilliant young scientist emotively exacted by Dev Patel, who just so happens to be in the midst of his own project. His employer has repeatedly pooh-pooed the idea, but it’s long been his dream to take this robot intelligence thing up a quantum rung by imbuing a machine with a fully functioning consciousness. Thus it just so happens that, on this eve of his abduction, having himself confiscated good old number 22, an injury prone robot cop assigned to be scrapped, he has at last succeeded. In the words of Dr. Frankenstein, “It’s alive, it’s alive!”
Hence, totally by dumb luck, the gang, consisting of Ninja as Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser as Yolandi and Jose Pablo Cantillo as Amerika, has nabbed the makings of a mechanical confederate. Problem is, these rather unsavory brutes, their tattooed ilk prophesied in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), have absolutely no idea how to turn the twice ill-gotten machine into a full-fledged bad guy. Dion, especially compelled to play a part in the robot’s education, cautions that it is a child. He hopes to impart a moral sense despite the crudity of its foster parents. He may have an ally.
Noting that the emerging, electronic being is a happy chappie, Yolandi, an intriguing, brave new world variation on the gun moll, names her new charge Chappie and, in an uncharacteristic turn, the blond-haired, gratingly high-pitched gutter rat reveals a motherly instinct. Much to the dismay of Ninja, her ultra-vile, philistine beau, this is the baby she never had. Sharlto Copley, who through some fine movie magic virtually squeezes into the tin can that is Chappie, credibly embodies the prodigal android who soon takes to calling Yolandi “Mommy.”
Meanwhile, back at the robotics company, where almost everybody has their own grand plan in the works, primarily for profit and in some cases power, the subplots brew. Sigourney Weaver is the shareholder-beholden Michelle Bradley, the CEO who couldn’t care less about the intrinsic, spiritual or scientific importance of what goes on in the cubicles outside her office. She keeps it simple and easy to keep score: money, money, money.
Hugh Jackman’s Vincent, on the other hand, totally ex-military, aspires to domination. His pet project, the crime-fighting Moose, a gigantic transformer-type behemoth, tacitly echoes the battle cry of the former professional wrestler, Pampero Firpo, the wild bull of the Pampas: “Kill, murder, destroy…kill everybody.” Well, we can’t all be altruistic visionaries like Dion…poor thing. Running back and forth between two worlds — the one that makes no bones about its thievery, and the one that veils it in disingenuous justification — he suffers a beating in both.
Despite all the tugging at his wires, chips and diodes, Chappie’s education progresses, his previously carte blanche soul filling up exponentially with mores and folkways from rival camps. Via this instrument, Mr. Blomkamp, working from a script he coauthored with Terri Tatchell, satirizes street society in a telling etude of how sociocultural fads and trends translate from one society to the next. Supporting the popularly accepted theories of environmental influence, our mechanical pilgrim becomes part humanist, part gangsta and develops an evolving street cred.
Of course we must root for the fellow. He is the ultimate innocent, tossed into the throes of a civilization where opposing forces grapple for survival with little concern for the consequences of their actions. While decidedly cutting edge and featuring a rootin-tootin, futuristic variation on the Gunfight at the OK Corral, lasers blazing, the charm here is in the film’s purity, a throwback to the genre’s original raison d’être. As folks are too often subjectively paralyzed from daring to test their capabilities, it’s heartening when a smart “Chappie” affirms our human potential.
“Chappie,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures release directed by Neill Blomkamp and stars Dev Patel, Yo-Landi Visser and Sharlto Copley. Running time: 120 minutes