Chappie: Gangsta robot in da 'hood

If you put RoboCop (the 1987 original and its 2014 remake) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) into a blender, the result might be something like CHAPPiE, a movie in which a decommissioned robot police officer is brought back to life with the ability to learn, think and love.

And given that the film is directed by South Africa-born Neill Blomkamp, it's only mildly perplexing that the narrative also calls for the robotic "newborn" to be raised by criminal gangsta rappers.

That last plot point might seem like a bridge too far for most filmmakers but Blomkamp, who wrote the screenplay together with Terri Tatchell, is well versed in creating odd sci-fi scenarios, as demonstrated in his debut feature District 9, where belligerent prawn-like extraterrestrials wrought havoc in Johannesburg.

District 9 was based on an earlier short film by Blomkamp and so is CHAPPiE, a feature-length extension of Blomkamp's 2004 short Tetra Vaal. Blomkamp's affinity for hand-held cameras and low-budget documentary-style techniques is complemented by his ability to include high-tech CGI effects into any gritty scene.

Thanks to stop-motion technology and the skill of Sharlto Copley in the title role, Chappie (rhymes with "Happy") and his robot brethren are all impressively rendered.

Some time in the near future, crime in Johannesburg has been kept in check by an army of robocops, working in conjunction with human colleagues. Robot creator Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a star performer for his company, has secretly developed software that will instil human-like consciousness into machines. Against the orders of his boss (Sigourney Weaver), he decides to try it out on a badly damaged robot that has been slated for the junk heap.

Just as he is about to do so, Deon is kidnapped by a trio of street toughs who plan to rob an armoured vehicle in order to pay off a drug lord. Chappie is "born" under duress, among thieves who reckon that having a robot on their side will make things a lot easier - but he also has a fast-growing mind of his own.

Deon teaches Chappie to determine right from wrong, and even as the would-be robbers (Yolandi Visser, Watkin Tudor Jones and Jose Pablo Cantillo) school the robokid in ghetto-speak and gangsta habits, he only wants to please them in the way a puppy would - not commit crimes.

There are some light moments as Chappie develops street-cred and staggers around swathed in gangsta bling but the film also features a couple of one-dimensional villains, including Vincent (Hugh Jackman, a long way from his Wolverine persona), a rival engineer (whose own robot creation requires a human operator) intent on sabotaging Deon's robot programme.

The bullets and metaphors fly thick and fast as Chappie's hands-on education continues, but the film's effectiveness as a satirical cautionary tale is impeded by too many mixed signals, vacillating between being dead serious one moment and downright cartoonish the next.

Whatever your persuasion though, robot or human, life in the Joburg 'hood is never easy - but having the right values plugged into you from the start sure helps.

Rating: C+

This article was first published on Mar 6, 2015.
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