[Screen It]


(2015) (Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman) (R)

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Sci-Fi/Action: Gang members get their hands on a police robot that's been modified to possess artificial intelligence and teach it the ways of their lifestyle, all while its creator worries about this new, sentient being.
It's the year 2016 and robots known as Scouts have replaced all of the flesh and blood police officers in Johannesburg. That's good news for Michelle Bradley (SIGOURNEY WEAVER), the CEO of weapons firm Tetra Vaal that's manufacturing the units, as well as Deon Wilson (DEV PATEL), the programmer who designed the automated cops that operate independent of human supervision. But that doesn't sit well with Vincent Moore (HUGH JACKMAN), a rival programmer and former soldier who's designed a competitive and more militarized unit known as Moose.

Deon's robotic cops are hated by the city's criminals, including the trio of Ninja (NINJA), his girlfriend Yo-Landi (YO-LANDI), and their friend Amerika (JOSE PABLO CANTILLO). The three owe a lot of money to crime boss Hippo (BRANDON AURET), and decide the best way to get around the police is to kidnap Deon and have him change the programming. They do just that, but he informs them their idea won't work due to built-in safeguards. But they're intrigued by a previously damaged scout that he's taken without permission in hopes of instilling artificial intelligence into the unit.

He ends up succeeding with that, and Yo-Landi decides to name this now child-like robot Chappie (voice of SHARLTO COPLEY), and he quickly learns and adapts to his surroundings. Deon is pleased with his creation, but not in what Ninja is plotting to do with his robot, a sentiment shared by Vincent once he learns what's transpired. As the thugs and Deon try to educate this new sentient being from their own viewpoints, with the criminals wanting to turn him into one of their own, Vincent plots to use that to his advantage so that his robot creation will receive the green light and be viewed as the better solution.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
I'm still a full believer in the can-do human spirit and what people can and often do accomplish when they put their minds and efforts into accomplishing something great. Yet, and at times of frustration dealing with how some people behave in certain circumstances, I wish computers and/or robots were in control.

Having sat on a jury a time or two in my life, I'd much rather have my fate -- if ever in that position -- rest in the hands of a computer's black and white view of the law than in the whims, nut ball beliefs and such of some human jurors. Seeing how many sports have gone to instant replay to double-check officiating calls (and sometimes still get it wrong), a bunch of cameras, the rule book and a computer to compare that would likely result in the correct calls being made more often. And don't get me started on traffic, especially seeing how some people react even if just the word "snow" is spoken around them. Bring on those Google self-driving cars!

In terms of movie-making and "film," computers are already heavily involved, from the format in which they're shot to all sorts of post-production trickery and more. Sometimes, especially after watching movies like "Chappie," I wish computers were involved more in the green light (or not) decision making as well as the screenwriting process above and beyond the involved simple word processing.

As related to this film, a computer could have easily looked at the overall premise -- of the screenplay penned by Terri Tatchell and director Neill Blomkamp -- and noted that we've already had a plethora of films about robots and androids that are sentient to one degree or another. While the economics side of the programming might note the usual box office success of such films, hopefully the creative side would have suggested doing something different rather than once again treading in the plot of police robots (what with "Robocop" having already been remade).

Here, Dev Patel plays a programmer who's designed an autonomous robot police force that doesn't need direct human control to operate. That's unlike his competitor (played by Hugh Jackman, criminally wasted) who's fashioned a far more militarized and much larger unit that's controlled by a human's mind. Unfortunately for him, their boss (Sigourney Weaver, also wasted in a one-note role) has chosen the former over the latter.

Unfortunately for the former, a trio of Johannesburg gangsters (Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser and Jose Pablo Cantillo) have chosen him as a way to shut off said police robots and let them go about their criminal ways unencumbered. He can't do that due to safety protocols, but he might be able to do them one better via a modified robot -- originally designated for recycling due to damage inflicted by another gangster (Brandon Auret) -- into which he's successfully uploaded true artificial intelligence.

The only issue is that the renamed Chappie (voiced by Blomkamp's go-to-guy, Sharlto Copley) is like an infant sponge that's ready to learn, albeit at an accelerated rate. The positive of that is the criminal trio can shape him in their gangbanger form and use his bulletproof outer casing to their distinct advantage. But as Chappie grows and learns, he becomes aware of his existence and mortality (a fused battery means his shelf life is mere days). There's some intriguing material at play there, including when the lone female gangbanger's maternal instincts kick in. Yet, once the robot falls into their hands and the "child rearing" begins, the film pretty much derails.

Our trusty computer overseer surely would have noted the high potential for negative viewer reaction to this turn of events, no doubt helped along by some plot developments that are so atrocious that I can't believe they passed muster. First off, there's Jackman's character pinning Patel's down to a desk at work with a handgun in front of everyone (why no one else reports this, let alone the victimized programmer, is a mystery).

Far more glaring, there's the monstrous gaffe where the gangsters let their kidnapping victim come and go as he pleases, despite him publically working with the police to create robots to deal with such people. And with them knowing the title character is only going to be around for a few days, why wouldn't they force the programmer to change more or even all of the police robots to serve them?

I could go on beating this cinematic dead horse, but what's the point? From the "Robocop" parallels to material covered better in the likes of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," "I, Robot" and a host of other similar pics," as well as some late in the game material that made up most of last year's sci-fi bomb, "Transcendence," this offering not only suffers from a severe case of derivativeness, but sheer stupidity and an overall inability to engage the viewer beyond an occasional moment or two.

Blomkamp showed a lot of promise with his debut film, "District 9" that mixed serious thematic issues into a rousing sci-fi action story. I'm guessing he was trying to do the same here, but a robot or computer along the way should have ended this before it began. "Chappie" had potential, but all sorts of issues make it dumber and less appealing than some area drivers in the snow. It rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 4, 2015 / Posted March 6, 2015

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