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Front Page - Friday, March 13, 2015

The Critic's Corner

‘Chappie’ aims for the moon, makes it halfway there

I thought about “Chappie” for days after seeing it last week. I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it – because I believed it was about ... something, even if I couldn’t put my finger on what.

On the surface, “Chappie” follows the adventures of a robot that can feel. The film, writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s third after the brilliant “District 9” and the clunky “Elysium,” is set in Johannesburg, South Africa about a decade in the future. To curb the growing crime rate, the government has purchased armored attack robots from a private weapons manufacturer, giving “Chappie” a strand of “RoboCop” DNA.

The creator of the robots, Deon, has also been developing artificial intelligence that mimics the human mind by allowing machines to think, feel, and be self-aware. When he asks his boss, played by Sigourney Weaver, if he can test it on one of the attack robots, she tells him no – presumably because that’s what the script tells her to do.

Determined to test his A.I., Deon steals a damaged robot and loads it into his van. But on his way home, a trio of gangsters kidnap him and the robot as part of a plan to pull off a big heist. When Deon installs the program and boots up Chappie in the threesome’s hideout, Chappie responds with childlike fear, and begins learning.

While Deon’s software is a success, there’s a problem. A fellow weapons designer named Vincent, will do whatever he can to sabotage Deon’s line of robots, which he believes are an affront to humanity. Painted in broad, cartoonish strokes by actor Hugh Jackman, he’s created a larger, clunkier, and inferior robot remotely controlled by humans, giving “Chappie” a strand of “Real Steel” DNA. Suffice to say Vincent complicates matters for Deon, Chappie, and our gangsters.

Chappie was brought to life by a combination of motion capture performance (a process by which an actor’s movements are used to animate a computer model) and remarkably photorealistic computer rendering. There are literally no seams in the animation; it looks as though there was a highly animated robot on the set, moving in a remarkably realistic manner.

Bringing Chappie to life involved more than high tech wizardry, though. The man behind those movements was actor Sharlto Copley, who played the lead in “District 9.” Like Andy Serkis did for the character of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films, Copley performed. And what a performance it is. From Chappie’s early, childlike innocence as he learns about the world around him, to the way he mimics the movements of the criminals (I love the way he sniffs and wipes his nose while walking like a gangster), to Chappie eventually developing his own body language based on his response to what he’s been through, Copley was brilliant. For all intents and purposes, Chappie is not just a computer graphic, but a tangible character in the movie.

This makes all the difference. Without it, “Chappie” would be difficult to swallow. It takes place in what must be the sullied underbelly of Johannesburg – in abandoned buildings riddled with graffiti and slums seemingly cobbled together out of sheets of rusty tin and human misery. The gangsters are abhorrent human beings who initially care only about themselves. Watching the behavior of two of the criminals, Ninja and Yolandi, played by real life South African rappers, I wanted to shrink away from the screen. Worse, I don’t know what possessed Jackman, or Blomkamp, to make Vincent such a buffoonish cliché.

But by allowing Chappie to be the emotional anchor for viewers, Blomkamp seems to be pulling their attention away from the human characters, perhaps in an attempt to help them understand what the robot means, or represents. But either he wasn’t sure what his movie was about, or he shrouded his message under a thick layer of pulp sci-fi, because as I walked out of the theater, I was curiously unsatisfied.

Days later, as I was still turning the film over in my mind, I hit on something that might or might not have been what Blomkamp was trying to say. “Chappie” is a violent film. We live in a violent world, and we’ve become largely numb to human-on-human violence. To get us to see where we are as a species, Blomkamp created a mechanical being, invested him with naiveté, and then subjected him to heartbreaking brutality. Fortunately, the ending suggests there is a way to become innocent again.

“Chappie” has taken a lot of hits from critics, and audiences didn’t exactly fill theaters during the film’s opening weekend. But it’s worth seeing, if only to marvel at the artistry that went into bringing the robot to life, and to ponder the film longer than the walk back to the car.

Two and a half stars out of four. Rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity. David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.