Borrowing from Robocop and his own District 9 movie, writer/director Neill Blomkamp serves up a weird little choppy sci-fi movie that would be more at home on the SyFy channel than on the big screen. But hey, you decide.
It’s only a few years in the future and Johannesburg, South Africa has solved quite a bit of it’s crime problems with the help of a robot police force. Called “Scouts”, these units are the brainchild of young Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) for the Tetravaal Company. These assembly-line and thinking human-sized robots not only make big bucks for CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), but are a constant source of ire for Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose own mammoth war robot (called “the MOOSE”) is sneered at. Oh, and he’s also a right-wing, egotistical blood-thirsty hypocritical Christian! Yikes!
Meanwhile, thieves Ninja (played by rapper Ninja…I kid you not), and his thug buddies, Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) are in debt to a mega-nutso gangster named Hippo (Brandon Auret). To get the $20 million, they decide to kidnap Deon, thinking he can devise a plan to switch off all the police Scouts at once, and let them steal in peace and quiet.
What they don’t know is Deon has made a breakthrough in science. . .an A.I. chip that will allow a robot to feel! Deon steals a robot from Tetravaal (since Bradley put the kibosh on his idea) and now the bad guys have him, the robot, and the chip! Fearing for his life and wanting to see if his chip works, he plugs it in to the robot and. . .walaa! Chappie is born! Like a newborn puppy and learning fast, the robot thinks, feels, and sees his thug family as his mommy and daddy (even calling them that).
Things go south later as Chappie’s “daddy”, Ninja, teaches him to shoot, accost people, curse, steal, and be a thug while Deon tries to reason with his creation to “just be you”. But jealous Vincent, so filled with rage over Deon’s rise to the top, sabotages all the Scouts on duty so that his MOOSE can save the day, with the usual disastrous consequences. The ending is a silly Transcendence moment where Chappie, his life expectancy only five days, tries to upload his conscientiousness into a computer along with with his dying maker, Deon.
Co-written with Blomkamp by Terri Tatchell, Chappie is an unamusing little bedtime story told to thug children before they go to bed at night with their Uzi and teddy bear. Not as wondrous as Spielberg’s A.I , but campy and assuming. Although there is some hint of A.I. vs religion, nothing is explored. It’s all about the bottom line here and money. The story meanders and waffles back and forth without ever really finding a foothold, which is a shame, since there was a good concept hiding somewhere in the script. But, much like like Blomkamp’s District 9, the story was almost the same in arc and contrast.
Chappie itself is an anime looking and cool very CGI fluid looking (voiced by Sharlto Copley) creation; a strange melange of the robots from Short Circuit and Wall-E. Having rappers play thugs was a novel idea, but it got old after a while and Yolandi, with her high-pitched helium voice, just got on my nerves. Really, there ARE better movies about robots becoming sentient.
For example. . .
Short Circuit (1986)
“Number Five is alive!” It’s bad enough that a robot achieves consciousness, but to have a bunch of goofy scientists and cops chasing after you is another. Especially if those scientists are Steve Guttenberg and Fisher Stevens.
In pure 1980’s cinema, a military exercise (featuring laser-firing robots) goes south when one of the robots gets hit by lightning and whammo! Robot number five’s computer gets a re-wiring and now becomes alive, seeking “input” from all living things. He (yes, it’s no longer a it, but a he) escapes the military compound and befriends Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy), who thinks Number Five (who looks alot like a tall Wall-E) is a space alien.
Meanwhile, Number Five’s caretakers and creator’s, Newton Crosby (Guttenberg) and Ben Jabituya (Stevens with a questionable Eastern Indian accent) are ordered to track down the loose robot by the companies ego-maniacal security chief, Captain Skroeder (G.W. Bailey–who made a living playing these characters). When they catch up with the elusive robot, they find out that Number Five has renamed himself “Johnny” and has not only learned the meaning about life and death, but about his own mortality.
But that crazed Capt. Skroeder isn’t go back without fulfilling his prime directive, even IF his quarry has turned alive in the interim. Johnny Five is blasted into a million pieces by the military while Newton, Ben, and Stephanie weep bitter tears. But! Was it really Johnny Five that was blown up? Nope! There had to be a sequel! Duh!
Written by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock and geared primarily for kids, this harmless film, directed by the great John Badham, was campy and clever and cutesy and another paycheck for Sheedy, Guttenberg, and Bailey who seemed to be in every movie in the 1980’s. Even though Stevens character was deemed as a slur against Eastern Indians, he was originally hired, fired, then re-hired again and told to keep his nutty accent, a character trait he used again when he reprised his role in 1989’s Short Circuit 2.
As of 2011, a reboot (everything nowadays is getting reboot) of this movie has been planned and greenlit, so there’s a good chance we’ll see Johnny Five come back into the theaters again soon.