120 minutes / Now showing / 4 stars
The story: Sometime in the near future, Johannesburg deploys robots to keep the streets safe. The humanoid crime-fighters are installed with a Scout programme written by Deon (Dev Patel). Vincent (Hugh Jackman) has created a competing Moose programme and is envious of his success. When Deon creates a new algorithm and uploads it into a robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley) - which is capable of learning and feeling - is born. Criminal Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones) wants to make use of Chappie to commit a daring heist.
Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is that rare film- maker who can execute exciting action scenes and also fill a movie with ideas.
His debut film District 9 (2009) was an action thriller pitting humans against aliens. It also dealt with xenophobia and social segregation issues. His follow-up Elysium (2013) had actor Matt Damon strapped into a exoskeleton suit while contemplating issues of justice, immigration and health care.
In Chappie, he again delivers a movie that touches the heart and engages the mind. It seems like an update of RoboCop (1987), except that humans are not needed to physically control the machines. The efficacy of the Scouts is demonstrated in a shoot-out with criminals as they leap about, scan for movement and take bullet shots in their stride.
The film ventures into very different territory as the creation of Chappie raises questions about what it means to have consciousness and to be mortal. At one juncture, he asks pointedly of Deon: "You're my maker, why did you make me so I could die?"
In a heart-racing finale, the question of whether a soul can be isolated from a physical body will determine the life or death of some characters.
Spanish film-maker Gabe Ibanez's sci-fi film Automata (2014) covered similar ground with its humanoid robots, but had a darker, noirish tone.
In Chappie, there are plenty of light moments, thanks to scenes of a robot going through the stages of human development. He progresses from a blank slate of a child to a petulant teenager, from repeating single words to mouthing profanities in the space of a few days. His helplessness triggers the maternal instinct of one of the baddies, Yolandi (Yolandi Visser).
Copley, who also acted in District 9 and Elysium, voices the robot and creates its movements, producing an unforgettable character who steals scenes from Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) and Jackman (The Wolverine, 2013). Think of this as Transformers with heart - and soul.
This article was first published on Mar 6, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.