★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Is it Short Circuit, or is it Robocop? The studio presenting Chappie couldn’t make up its mind either, with one trailer emphasizing gut-punching explosions and macho android posturing, and the other featuring a shy robot exploring the contents of a refrigerator and listening to bedtime stories. This sci-fi action drama by innovative South African director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) invites comparisons to both movies, but the end result is more ambitious and profound than either.
In the near future, Johannesburg’s police force has been replaced with obedient robots with combat intelligence. Their invention has been a boon for law enforcement, as well as for manufacturing CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), but there’s dissent in the latter’s ranks. Roboticist Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is suspicious of any kind of machine without a human at the helm, while engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) thinks artificial intelligence hasn’t gone far enough. In his spare time, Wilson has been working on a more sophisticated program that can think, learn, and create. When his boss nixes the project, he secretly snags the opportunity to test his software on a model that’s going to be junked anyway. It’s a foolproof plan—at least until a pair of low-level criminals (Yolandi Visser and Ninja of the South African rap duo Die Antwoord) kidnap him and his experiment “Chappie” (played via performance capture by Blomkamp’s go-to leading man Sharlto Copley) as part of their plan to pay back a drug debt.
As a newborn consciousness, Chappie is fearful and tender, eliciting kindness from his foster “mother” (Visser) and amazement from his “maker” (Patel), but disdain and frustration from his “father” (Ninja). The three guardians fight over the best way to educate him. With empathy, out of respect for his dawning selfhood? Or with viciousness and swagger, so he can stay alive in their hard world? Blomkamp’s movies are linked by the theme of the powerless battling the powerful: District 9 was an extraterrestrial metaphor for South Africa’s apartheid, while Elysium represented the conflict between rich and poor. Chappie is about the struggle between children and adults, and about reaching maturity in spite of the baggage imposed by grown-ups and their corrupt society; it’s a bildungsroman for the transhuman age.
But just because this film is about children doesn’t mean it’s for them. Its considerable level of violence is nothing compared to the emotional distress meted out to the audience. (When Chappie asks his maker, “Why did you create me knowing I would die?,” the question isn’t delivered with a quizzical tilt of the head like a golden retriever, but with the genuine anguish of a child horrified by a parent’s betrayal.) Yet every frame of this supremely entertaining movie is suffused with confidence, not only in its ability to dish out visceral action thrills, but to do so while still containing the marrow of a very serious meditation on the meaning of existence. In addition, its ingenious finale makes all other films about martyred naïfs look lazy and incomplete by comparison. Superbly satisfying on many levels, Chappie might be one of the best movies of the year.