Robot asks soul-searching questions in Chappie

Director Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame uses a robot in his new movie to ask questions about what makes a human being

Dev Patel stars as Deon, the tech guru who engineers Chappie (both left), a robot freshly programmed with sentient intelligence, while Sigourney Weaver (above) plays Patel's boss.
Dev Patel stars as Deon, the tech guru who engineers Chappie (both left), a robot freshly programmed with sentient intelligence, while Sigourney Weaver (above) plays Patel's boss. PHOTOS: SONY PICTURES
Dev Patel stars as Deon, the tech guru who engineers Chappie (both left), a robot freshly programmed with sentient intelligence, while Sigourney Weaver (above) plays Patel's boss. PHOTOS: SONY PICTURES

The eternal question of what the soul is made of is on the way to finding an answer of sorts - via a 21st-century Robocop called Chappie, dreamt up by animator extraordinaire and South African film director Neill Blomkamp.

Opening in Singapore tomorrow, the two-hour feature stars Hugh Jackman as a baddie, Sigourney Weaver as a Ripley-esque business captain and Dev Patel as the robot's maker. South African actor Sharlto Copley, a long-time collaborator of Blomkamp and last seen working together with him in the heralded District 9 (2009), plays the robot.

"Chappie is not a message so much as a question - what is the soul?" Blomkamp, 35, says at a press conference for the film in Berlin.

"Is it definable by science? Is it more than ones and zeroes? Are we just electric impulses running through an organic computer or is it something more?"

As with the critically acclaimed District 9, which dealt with apartheid via a science-fiction parable, Blomkamp has tried to plumb the depths of humanity in his latest encounter with computergenerated imagery and post-human issues.

Chappie is set in the high-security suburbs as well as industrial slums of Johannesburg. The titular character is an orphaned robot freshly programmed with sentient intelligence and brought up in the unlikely environment of a gangster den. He learns street slang and how to use switchblades alongside Barbie-doll play and watercolour painting, the latter two skills taught to him by his besieged gangster mother and kidnapped maker.

Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008), who plays Deon, the tech guru who engineers the robot, explains: "My character wants to teach him the right things in life and allow him to be a companion and friend to humans."

He adds: "I'm a 24-year-old and I'm still trying to figure out who I am, trying to interact better with humans around me. You put that into this film in a different sci-fi concept. It's a really interesting elevation of that idea."

Sigourney Weaver, 65, who plays Patel's boss, elaborates: "There he is, Chappie, learning from everyone around him - but it takes so little from Deon, his maker, to carefully put through the few things he says to him.

"It cuts through like a very strong light. I find that's such an interesting part of nature vs nurture. If you just let some light in, it could be very powerful."

Indeed. The "environment or genes" debate that Weaver speaks of was also one of the secondary themes Blomkamp wanted to work on in this film.

"I like the idea of a blank slate," the director reveals. "A child is born into an environment, how much is determined by the environment?

"I like science fiction for two reasons," he adds. "When I was younger, it was that there were guns and a bunch of explosions. Now, as I become older, it is that you can talk about topics that are deeper - serious topics such as racial discrimination in District 9 or the soul and consciousness in this movie. Ultimately, it's the best way to talk about topics in a fun way, a popcorn way instead of making a documentary."

Not that the director has shied away from other avenues, though. Blomkamp, who co-wrote District 9 and this movie with his wife Terri Tatchell, is no stranger to the world of mockumentaries and glamour advertisements. Indeed - futurism, aliens, artificial intelligence and gritty South African life all get full play in his small but growing oeuvre of short, cinema verite-style films.

Part of this, he admits, is due to his early visualmedia diet of Japanese animation (particularly that of Masamune Shirow, the writer-artist of Ghost In The Shell) and his subsequent following of its separate takes on cyborg culture.

Another part comes down to the little boy within him - the tech-savvy kid who once dreamt of crazy computers, rocket launchers and the thrill of closing down a major highway in his hometown for a car chase scene - a feat he got to enact in Chappie.

Trashing motorways aside, another coup Blomkamp achieved was his signing of South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord onto the film - playing none other than themselves. Ninja and Yolandi Visser interpret versions of their real selves throughout the movie - down to the stunts and tattoos - while living in a set painted to their specifications.

The musicians were also responsible for much of the bling in the film as well as Chappie's distinctive slang.

"It's the Cape Flat gang - their lingo, the way they speak, it's amazing," Blomkamp says.

Nailing the slang was not his final hat trick, however. Starstruck as Blomkamp was in the movie while working alongside big Hollywood names such as Jackman and Weaver, he somehow managed to secure his biggest coup to date: a future slot in the ultimate science-fiction franchise - Alien 5.

Here, no less than Ellen Ripley, Alien star nonpareil, has given him her endorsement.

Weaver, who has been at the centre of four Alien films from 1979 to 1997, says: "I'm very excited that Neill is going to take this on. I think the series has been waiting for this to happen and it had to happen as it did for us on the set of Chappie - very organically. I couldn't be more pleased."

Will we finally discover the secret to the universal soul? Keep your eyes peeled.

Chappie opens in Singapore tomorrow.

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