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Chappie

Year: 2015
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Producer: Neill Blomkamp/Simon Kinberg
Writer: Neill Blomkamp/Terry Tatchell
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver

The subsequent release of Ex Machina only highlighted what a missed opportunity Chappie to was for moviegoers interested in artificial intelligence. Director Neill Blomkamp has the same technical skills he always has and everything looks great on screen. The story just never really grasped the philosophical questions that inevitably arise like 'to what extent is the soul wedded to the physical body?', 'what does it mean to be alive in the spiritual sense?' and 'how much stupider can Hugh Jackman look after Steve Irwin shorts and a mullet?'

Later it occurs to you that Chappie is partly a drones parable. It's set in a similar near-future Johannesburg as District 9 and a technology corporation has augmented (with a view to replace) the human police force with sentient robot cops. I'm surprised there weren't more comparisons with the original Robocop – there might have been if it hadn't flopped so badly.

One such unit that seems to have terrible luck and keeps coming back for repairs is finally destined for scrapheap, but the inventor Deon (Dev Patel) requisitions it out of the trash against the orders of his profit–driven CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) to enable the next level of his true goal.

While his employer is only interested in AI giving their robotic police fleet the performance they need, Deon's writing an entirely sentient AI algorithm he wants to upload to a robot body to create the world's first truly intelligent artificial life form.

Trying to hide the resulting being – Chappie – from his bosses, Deon loses Chappie to a gang of ruthless criminals who live in an abandoned factory. Realising he's like a newborn child and has a moral blank slate, they start to groom him to a life of crime to help propel them to the top of the underworld.

At the same time, Deon's fearsome engineer colleague Vincent (Jackman) is gunning to get the entire police robot program shut down so he can replace it with his own human-controlled weaponised robot, The Moose. He doesn't trust self-thinking machinery and Chappie's existence will only put more fuel on his fire.

There's a lot in the movie to like, but there's just as much to dislike. A lot of the voices and characters (including the titular robot) are irritating in their attempt to be cutesy. The trio of hoods who adopt and start to raise Chappie from his virtual childhood are so repugnant – and not in a good way – you just don't want to spend any more time with them, let alone identify or sympathise with them.

On the upside the visuals are incredible, and it's impossible to see where the CGI of the articulated police robots ends and the real world begins. Using Sharlto Copley in a motion captured suit and the movable ears/antenna, Blomkamp gives Chappie a real personality the same way Wall.E had with only his big eyes to convey emotion.

It also gets an extra point for the way it depicts computers. Instead of everything being rendered in ridiculous graphical animations, computing is done by adding lines of code to white DOS text on a black screen.

But overall it's just too messy, the tone goes everywhere, the philosophy and action sit awkwardly side by side, and it needed a whole lot of extraneous fat trimmed off. If Ex Machina is a candlelit dinner in a clean-lined restaurant, Chappie is a lot of pizza and sherbert and a few hours playing video games in soiled underwear.

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