When we first meet Chappie, one of a growing number of seemingly indestructible weaponised robots or “scouts” being rolled out to augment the flesh and blood police of crime-ridden Johannesburg, he is not leading what you might call a charmed existence.
So unlucky is the hapless droid, who has endured the indignity of having his head crushed by a car and his battery fused to his metallic body by a squarely-aimed RPG rocket impact, that he has been scheduled for destruction by the man who invented him and his pre-programmed comrades, artificial intelligence wunderkind Deon Wilson (Dev Patel).
This all changes though after an “all-nighter” of Red Bulls and ceaseless coding when Deon, who is frustrated by the limitations of working for weapons manufacturer Tetravaal – the name of the company is a nod to the 2003 short film of the same name by the film’s director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) – finally creates true artificial intelligence that can learn and grow like any person.
Enervated by his discovery, he races to work, where his rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman who sports an unfashionable mullet and a possibly even less desirable wardrobe) is constantly plotting to get his ungainly over-sized Pacific Rim type combat robots or Moose into poll position over Deon’s scouts, to seek permission to use Chappie as his test subject.
Thrilled at the limitless possibilities of the artificial intelligence he has created, he is crestfallen when the CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver who is wasted in the role though she acquits herself well) rejects his proposal, largely on the basis that Tetravaal manufactures weapons, not robots capable of painting or writing poetry.
Only temporarily undaunted, he decides to use Chappie or scout number 22, as his guinea pig, and spirits the inactive, and thus far unremarkable droid, out of the company’s premises to work on him at home.
He doesn’t make it that far though, kidnapped along with Chappie by a low level gang of three thugs who, in debt to violent local crime kingpin Hippo (Brandon Auret), are seeking a way to turn of all the police robots so they can embark on a limited but lucrative crime spree.
It’s here that a miraculous journey begins as Deon, forced to insert the self-awareness program into Chappie by his kidnappers, two of whom are played by Ninja and Yolandi Visser of South African rap/rave group Die Antwoord, watches in astonishment as Chappie comes alive, initially with only the self-awareness and skills of a toddler, gleefully eager for knowledge which he acquires and acts on with astonishing speed.
If this was all that Chappie was, an exploration of what it means to be human, loved and valued for who you are, a black sheep though you may be, then the film would be more Wall-E/Short Circuit/Batteries Not Included than the violent Robocop-like mess it eventually becomes.
As a study in the very essence of humanity, and the intricate web of learned experiences and intensely-personal relationships, it spawns, Chappie is a triumph.
It is genuinely touching to watch the young droid grow and see him form a close nurturing relationship with “Mummy”, Yolandi Visser, who reads him bedtime stories and intercedes against the more violent and utilitarian demands of her easily-inflamed partner Ninja and his partner in crime Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo).
Ninja, especially, sees Chappie purely as a means to a debt-reducing end, and you can can’t help but feel deeply for the newly self-aware robot when he is attacked and set on fire by a vicious band of hoodlums, reacting with fear and panic as any child in that situation would.
Even when he is styled as a bling-wearing thug by Ninja and Amerika, coached to be a one-robot crimewave – a role he is distinctly uncomfortable with after Deon, aghast at what is happening to his precious creation, makes him promise not to hurt anyone or break any laws – he is endearing in every way, so eager is his desire to please the parental figures in his life.
And the great affection that Deon holds for him, his delight at watching his “child” grow and develop in ways that surprise him, and the bond he subsequently forms with Chappie despite Ninja’s intimidating attempts to keep them apart, are a pleasure to watch.
That Chappie is such an appealing figure has everything to do with Blomkamp’s longtime collaborator Sharlto Copley who imbues Chappie, who he brings to life with pitch-perfect voice and motion capture, with childlike wonderment, whimsical joy and a smile-inducing curiosity for the world around him.
In fact, you can safely say that, Deon and Yolandi Visser apart, Chappie is the most human part of the movie, enraptured by being alive, and determined to remain that way, whatever the cost and effort, when he discovers that his fused battery cannot be replaced, meaning that at some point in the not too distant future this appealing fellow will, like all life before him, die.
Unfortunately where Chappie falls down, and falls down substantially, is in its inability to decide if it is a deeply-affecting excursion into the heart of true humanity, or a blow-’em-up, bust-’em-up bloodbath, crammed to the max with explosions, death, destruction and general city-leveling mayhem.
The positives of Chappie the character, of which there are many, aren’t enough to save Chappie the film from becoming a confused mess of petty, poorly-executed rivalries – the titanic struggle between Jackman’s cartoon-ish villain and Deon’s eager innocent-abroad optimist is half-baked and oddly handled – and almost pointless blockbuster violence.
It does somewhat save itself in the dying minutes of the film when something utterly moving and unprecedented happens to Chappie, Deon and Yolandi, and the intensely-intimate emotions which power much of the first half of the film briefly come back into play to emotionally-evocative effect.
But it’s not enough to grant the movie the sort of rapturous approval that Chappie himself merits and which it comes close to achieving in the scenes devoted to the fully-conscious droid’s quest to become enduringly, delightfully human.
Though Chappie boasts some impressive world-building with Johannesburg realised in all its gritty wild west glory, a stunning score by Hans Zimmer and memorable, scene-enhancing songs by Die Antwoord, and gripping cinematography by Trent Opaloch, it ultimately suffers from not knowing where its creative heart lies and hence where its narrative energy should be ultimately, and fruitfully, directed.