I’ve argued before that critics should know their blind spots. So I should acknowledge one of mine before we get started with this review.
I’m a total sucker for Short Circuit 2.
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Not the original adventure of Johnny Five, the war-fighting robot that achieves sentience after a lightning strike (or whatever), but the sequel, which moved the action to New York City and saw gangs and mobsters take advantage of the childlike droid. The scene in which Johnny Five is beaten with crowbars by a group of criminals he thought were his friends was, likely, the most traumatic thing I saw growing up. I was a sheltered child.
So when I say Chappie reminds me of Short Circuit 2 by way of Robocop and District 9, you have to understand that I mean it in the nicest sense possible. Neill Blomkamp’s latest movie is alternately charming and exciting if occasionally—well, okay, constantly—more than a little bit hokey.
Set in the near future, Blomkamp envisions a Johannesburg that is overrun by automatic-weapon-wielding gangs. The police are powerless to stop their assault, so the city has turned to a private company to create a robot that can sweep the streets of crime.
The film opens with an extended demonstration of the prowess of these "scouts": Fearless, immune to small arms fire, and a crack-shot, the robot charges into danger with human handlers just a few steps behind.
Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the programmer of these remarkable machines. But he’s not done innovating. He wants permission to pursue his dream of infusing one of the scouts with an artificial intelligence program that he has been working on. Imagine, he tells his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), a robot that can decide whether or not it likes art, a robot that can write poetry.
Bradley laughs in his face. Giving a weapon system an urge to write poetry is not good for business. Nor, frankly, a terribly wise move, given the cinematic history of autonomous, self-aware killing machines.
But Deon won’t give up. He steals a unit designated for scrap, only to get hijacked by a trio of thugs who kidnap him in order to show him how they are able to turn off the scouts ahead of a planned heist.
Instead of an off-switch, the gangsters have stumbled onto something better: At their command, Deon uploads his program—consciousness.dat, conveniently—into one of the robots.
The result is Chappie (voiced and articulated by Sharlto Copley). Like a cross between a four-year-old boy and a cute dog, Chappie quickly comes to think of Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Ninja (Ninja) as his mother and father, respectively. The third member of their crew, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) is his best friend. Deon is his maker.
What follows is an extended lesson in the cruelty of humanity—its hatred for the other, its impulse for destruction, and its degradation of the innocent. Chappie is beaten and tormented before being partially dismembered by one of Deon’s devoutly religious coworkers (Hugh Jackman), who believes that Chappie is not only an abomination but also a threat to his business.
But Chappie also learns about love. Yolandi deeply cares for the robot, his childlike behavior sparking her maternal sensibilities. Ninja starts the film off as the world’s worst dad—the second act of Chappie is probably best understood as a parable for the nightmares of child abuse—but ends up as a doting father (of sorts).
Blomkamp’s vision of Johannesburg is nightmarish, a holdover from his previous film set in South Africa’s largest city. Given Blomkamp’s family’s history—they fled South Africa as the nation spiraled into violence after the end of apartheid—that’s not terribly surprising.
Like District 9, the Johannesburg of Chappie seems ready to burst at any moment, a hell-scape of criminals and warlords looking for any excuse to go wilding. This movie isn’t a parable about the evils of violating the civil rights of criminals or a comment on a culture suffused with fear, like Robocop. It’s about a society on the edge, one in which robots are the only thing holding back barely restrained anarchy.
But it’s also about love and family and the mysteries of consciousness and the predations of humanity. And, yes, about a cute, if at times cloying, robot.