In the near future, South Africa's crime problem has reached barely tolerable levels, in fact it's one of the most violent places in the world - or at least it was until they managed to take the rate straight down with the introduction of a new kind of law enforcement. These were robots created by a private company working in tandem with the police force, and they are so reliable that there’s barely any need for human officers to accompany them in anything other than a guidance capacity, what with their unerring accuracy, ability to follow any order, and impregnable titanium armour. But one of the company's chief inventors, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has some pioneering ideas of his own about a further step in robot development...
Of the two artificial intelligence movies released in 2015, Chappie was the one least taken seriously, for Ex Machina was a very sombre science fiction talk piece with a small cast and tastefully used special effects. In comparison, this was a splashy, sprawling, ridiculous take on the subject casting trashy rappers in two key roles, big stars in support, and the kid from Slumdog Millionaire as if he was a genuine draw for blockbusters, not to mention a grasp of technology that many of those watching would delight in taking down with a virtual rugby tackle for years to come. But given the choice, would you really prefer the dry and rarefied air of the Alex Garland movie, or was director Neill Blomkamp's vision a lot more exciting, purely because it was so giddy with its ideas?
They were both worthwhile efforts in their way, but Chappie had a certain audacity that Ex Machina only really embraced in its closing stages, and Blomkamp was more keen to explode with crazy notions in the service of the age old Frankenstein tale: many observed a connection plotwise between this and the sci-fi family movie of thirty years before, Short Circuit, which also concerned a childlike robot attaining consciousness. Chappie was harder edged, though sentimentality was not entirely alien to it, indeed it tended to wear its heart on its sleeve when it came to depicting the exploitation of its title machine, here played by Blomkamp's regular colleague Sharlto Copley, from the moment Deon uploads his soul into a damaged, soon to be rejected and crushed for scrap police robot.
There are complications in the shape of the gangsters trying to reassert their dominance, and three troublemakers who kidnap Deon with a view to turning Chappie to crime are those two rappers - Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, the former of whom was the centre of rumours of obnoxious behaviour on the set - and their Mexican-American cohort (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who try to turn the machine to crime. But Deon has tried to instil a morality into it much as a benevolent God would to their creation, suggesting a sense of right and wrong is something we are born with and must be unlearned in order to behave with such selfishness that we become criminals, or at least make some innocent soul's life a misery. Were Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell correct in their pop psychology? Whether they were or not, they were sticking with their theory, driving it home in scene after scene.
Talking of evildoers brings us to the big stars; the director was a big fan of the Alien series hence Sigourney Weaver shows up here as Deon's cold-hearted American boss, though her actions pale into significance compared to another employee, butch, musclebound scientist (are there such people?) Vincent Moore, played by Hugh Jackman even more Australian than he was in Australia (the movie). He has his own law enforcement machine, a sort of Ed-209 which is in storage because Deon's robots have been such a success, but he's not going to let that stop his baby and plots to implement what he sees as superior technology, mainly down to it being a relentless killer that blows stuff up real good. Throw in musings over how free will can just as easily allow you to turn to hate as it does love and whether that should be curbed (a touch Clockwork Orange, then) and you had a mishmash that in spite of the poor reception proved a readymade cult movie for those who wanted sci-fi aware of its origins but unafraid to take those to wilder locations. Music by Hans Zimmer.