Movie review: He learns, he feels, he steals - Chappie is an unforgettable robot

When Deon (Dev Patel) creates a new algorithm and uploads it into a robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley) - who is capable of learning and feeling - is born. -- PHOTO: SONY PICTURES
When Deon (Dev Patel) creates a new algorithm and uploads it into a robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley) - who is capable of learning and feeling - is born. -- PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

CHAPPIE (NC16)/120 minutes/Now showing/4 stars

The story: In the year 2016, Johannesburg is deploying 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 Scout's success. When Deon creates a new algorithm and uploads it into a robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley) - who is capable of learning and feeling - is born. Desperate 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 both execute exciting action scenes and also fill a movie with ideas.

His debut feature District 9 (2009) was an action thriller pitting humans against aliens. At the same time, it dealt with issues of xenophobia and social segregation. His follow-up Elysium (2013) had movie star Matt Damon strapped into a powerful exoskeleton suit while contemplating issues of justice, immigration and health care.

In Chappie, he again delivers a flick that touches and thrills the heart and engages the mind.

It seems like an update of RoboCop (1987) early on, except that humans are not even needed to physically control the machines here. The efficacy of the Scouts are demonstrated in a shoot-out with a gang of criminals as they leap about, scan for movement and take bullet shots in their stride.

Soon, 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 which merges Blomkamp's strengths, the question of whether a soul can be isolated from a physical body will determine the life or death of some major characters.

The sci-fi actioner Automata (2014) by Spanish film-maker Gabe Ibanez covered similar thematic ground with its sentient humanoid robots. While it was satisfying in its own right, it took a different approach with 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 profanity, in the space of a few days. His helplessness even triggers the maternal instinct of one of the baddies, Yolandi (Yolandi Visser).

Copley, who also starred in District 9 and Elysium, voices the robot as well as creates its movements and gestures, producing an unforgettable character who steals scenes from Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) and Jackman (The Wolverine, 2013), sporting a redneck mullet haircut.

Think of this as Transformers with heart - and soul.

bchan@sph.com.sg