Expanded by South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp from his 2004 short film Tetra Vaal, Chappie is a futuristic thriller, which hardwires the heavy-armoured brutality of RoboCop with the childlike wonder of Short Circuit.
It’s an unlikely mechanised hybrid and the script, co-written by Terri Tatchell, suffers abrupt shifts in tone within an episodic narrative that poses, but doesn’t answer, unsettling questions about artificial intelligence and our rush to supplant human imperfection with clinical robot precision.
The delicious irony of Blomkamp’s endeavour is obvious: the eponymous police droid wouldn’t exist on the big screen without digital trickery, replacing Sharlto Copley’s on-set performance, frame by frame, with a battery-powered doppelganger.
Blomkamp remains in his native South Africa, where he made his mark with the Oscar-nominated District 9, and sets the film’s murky moral quandaries against a vibrant backdrop of inner-city hustle and bustle and ramshackle shanty towns.
The year is 2016 and crime rates in Johannesburg are falling thanks to robot police droids called Scouts, manufactured by Tetra Vaal under the aegis of CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver).
Fresh-faced engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the genius behind the Scout program and his celebrity status is a thorn in the side of rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose crude, heavily armed prototype Moose has been side-lined by the rousing success of the Scouts.
Deon wants to take his program to the next level and hopes to give birth to a fully conscious artificial intelligence.
He conducts experiments in secret, only to be kidnapped during the testing phase by low-level criminals Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi) and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who stumble upon Deon’s childlike robotic creation, christened Chappie (Copley), and decide to corrupt the automaton for a heist.
Punctuated by propulsive action sequences, Chappie bears obvious similarities to RoboCop.
The design of the war-mongering Moose robot owes a small debt to the lumbering ED-209 from Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 blockbuster, albeit with rocket thrusters and a dizzying arsenal of weaponry.
Copley elegantly conveys the inquisitiveness of the new born hero and Jackman growls and grimaces as a swarthy villain, who exploits Chappie’s unethical creation for personal gain... even if that means reducing half of the city to rubble.
Weaver is shamefully underused but is hopefully just warming up for her return to the Alien franchise with Blomkamp at the helm.
Now that’s a sci-fi adventure to really get your hard drive whirring.