Is artificial intelligence truly alive? It’s a question floated early on in “Chappie,” the story of a robot salvaged from a mechanized police force and reprogrammed to think for itself. And it’s a question we’re especially intrigued to see the movie tackle, since it comes from Neill Blomkamp, the South African director who made such a smart debut with the sci-fi apartheid allegory “District 9.”
As it plays out, though, the film isn’t any more concerned with its real-boy-or-not debate than “Pinocchio” was — it simply takes its character’s existential validity as a given, and barrels ahead from there. Between this and some undercooked narrative bits, it does make you wonder if Blomkamp has borrowed a career page from the Wachowskis, and hit us with all his brainiest ideas straight off. (His sophomore effort, “Elysium,” was underwhelming.) But “Chappie” boasts so many entertaining elements, particularly the lead motion-capture performance by Blomkamp’s go-to guy Sharlto Copley, its shortcomings don’t sink the movie.
Blomkamp opens with a rush of images of Johannesburg ravaged by gang violence, followed by reports on a successful multinational tech venture to crack down with an army of deputized robots. They’re nimble, dazzlingly rendered humanoid units that run on software engineered by the corporation’s star code geek, Deon (Dev Patel). But they’re downright infernal machines to Deon’s rival (Hugh Jackman), an ex-military hardcase whose bulkier, neural-linked design has lost favor within the company.
So far, so “RoboCop.” (Even the look of Jackman’s clunker is a clear homage.) Chaos creeps back in when Deon sneaks off with a fried unit, frustrated that his boss (Sigourney Weaver, not at her best) doesn’t share his excitement about potentially helping the robots feel. But he hasn’t even gotten his extracurricular project home when he’s abducted by punk anarchists (South African rave-rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, plus Jose Pablo Cantillo) scheming to put Deon’s know-how to work for them. The junker is booted up with Deon’s experimental AI software, and Chappie is born.
The ensuing mix of breezy action and innocent-at-risk pathos is terrific viewing. Copley plays his character with baby animal skittishness to start, then childlike prattling wonder as amusing as anything in “Big Hero 6.” (This is also where some clever production design comes in — Chappie is like a “Star Wars” battle droid fitted with metallic bunny ears that prove to be infinitely expressive.) Bad influences Ninja and Yo-Landi are entertainingly cast — she’s like Bjork gone wild, and he’s a trash gangsta in all-about-the-Benjamins boxers. Johannesburg newscast viewers might be shocked to see a misguided droid living the thug life, but we’re good with it.
What’s hard to buy is some flawed logic and character development. Jackman knows from playing volatile after Wolverine, but Blomkamp employs him amazingly ineffectively compared to those hip-hop finds. The character is supposed to have a big-game hunter’s edge, but he comes off as a park ranger who’s lost it. (The khaki shorts and mullet don’t help.) Meanwhile, there are some plot-twisting musings on mortality and the soul that are thoughtful, sure. But they aren’t thought through half as fully as Blomkamp’s ultraviolent battle choreography.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.