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Movie Review: About a (Robot) Boy – “Chappie”


Picture Credit: Columbia Pictures

The science–fiction genre is filled with several examples of creatures that are more human than human beings. Most of them come across as heavy–handed morality tales that leave audiences wondering why they spent time and money being lectured on why humans and corporations are terrible, yet the things humans and corporations create are not. Movies like I, Robot offer humanity a small slice of redemption, but not enough to drown out all of the messages regarding humanity’s failures and willingness to let corporations take over their lives.

Columbia Pictures’ Chappie, based on Neil Blomkamp’s Tetra Vaal and written by Blomkamp, spends less time on humanity’s descent and focuses instead on what comprises humanity. Blomkamp illustrates the matter in question through the title character, a police robot named Chappie, and the people who teach him how to find his way. Chappie grows from a frightened “newborn” into a courageous “adult,” while illustrating that a creature created by human beings has the same successes and failings. Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Yolandi Visser, and Watkin Tudor “Ninja” Jones play leading roles. Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver also star.

The film opens with an explanation of the high crime rate (by CNN reporter, Anderson Cooper) in Johannesburg, South Africa. The South African government purchases police robots from the Tetravaal Corporation, owned by Michelle Bradley (Weaver) and created by Deon Wilson (Patel). The robots are extremely effective and, as crime decreases, fewer human policemen are needed. Deon is a professional success when the government orders another shipment of the robots. Vincent Moore (Jackman), a fellow Tetravaal engineer, is envious of Deon’s success. Moore’s own police robot, MOOSE, has his funding cut as the scouts prove effective. The robots are controlled by a single guard key, protecting them from hacking or being used against ordinary citizens.

Scout–22 (Copley) is a police droid cursed with ill luck, damaged and repaired on a regular basis. After being hit by a car, one of his blue antennae is replaced with an orange one, he’s sent on a raid against a heavily armed gang. The gang leader threatens the criminal trio of Ninja, Yolandi and Yankie (Jones, Visser, and Jose Pablo Cantillo) with death if they don’t pay him twenty million rand in seven days. Scout–22 almost captures the gang leader, but is hit by a rocket while covering his fellow officers. Ninja, Yolandi, and Yankie narrowly escape capture while Scout–22 is returned to base.

Yolandi devises a plan to heist the money for their debt and retire before they are all killed. She also suggests shutting down the police robots to keep them from interfering. A quick Google search names Deon as the maker of the robots and Yolandi’s team has their target.

When Scout–22 is deemed irreparable, Deon authorizes his team to destroy the robot and returns home, where he finally creates a successful artificial intelligence program. Bradley rejects his idea of robots as anything other than weapons, so Deon saves Scout–22 and breaches the company protocol by stealing the robot and the guard key so that he upload his AI.

Ninja, Yolandi and Yankie kidnap Deon at gunpoint and force him to activate the robot. The robot is frightened of his surroundings, but quickly warms to Yolandi and Deon. Yolandi becomes “Mommy” and renames the robot Chappie. Chappie begins with the knowledge and curiosity of a child but is soon smarter than everyone around him. Deon wants him to be better than those around him. Ninja, wanting a fighting robot, abandons Chappie to street punks, who set him on fire while he begs for mercy. A vengeful Moore then finds and mutilates him, stealing the guard key, but Chappie escapes before Moore destroys him and returns to the gang.

Each member of Chappie’s “family” expects different things from him. When Moore shuts down the police robots and turns Johannesburg into a war zone, Chappie’s impulse to protect his family will prove how human he truly is.

The Good: Copley’s performance as Chappie is enjoyable. Chappie’s confusion at the cruelty of humans, as well as their kindness, hits the right notes while being heartbreaking. The scene where he’s attacked and set on fire is hard to watch. His learning to commit crime is downright hilarious. Yolandi Visser’s performance is touching, as she alternates from street–tough gang girl to loving mother, often in the same scene. She nurtures Chappie and explains the meaning of death and souls, making their interactions a key point in the film.

Portillo and Jones have great comedic timing. Watching the pair make Chappie their Number One Gangster is over–the–top, but not absurd.

The Bad: The exact year that the film takes place in, but it’s alluded to be the very near future. I don’t imagine natives of Johannesburg view this take on their city favorably. Johannesburg is a beautiful city but little of it was shown besides the freeway and a few houses. Gangsters have easy access to military–grade weaponry while the police force has robots and sub-machine guns and is still outmatched. The cops look lost without a robot doing the heavy lifting.

Jackman’s Vincent Moore has the same expression throughout the movie, until he meets Chappie face–to–face. He’s disgusted that a robot that can feel and think and commits heinous acts to get MOOSE off the ground. Jackman’s character felt one–dimensional and there was no explanation for his hatred of artificial intelligence. More depth would have made would have shown more than a bitter man jealous of the younger guy.

The Verdict: Chappie’s light moments contrast the “humans are bad” motifs and tell a good story about makes us human. The profanity and violence suggest leaving the children at home, though.

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