'Chappie' a sci-fi action flick that's everything it should be.

AuthorLaSalle, Mick

Byline: Mick LaSalle


A Columbia Pictures film

Rating: R for violence, language and brief nudity

Running time: 2 hours

To see "Chappie'' is to feel like you're looking inside a mind infested by everything wrong with today's movies. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp ("District 9'') is in love with action. He's in love with CGI characters, computers in general and the dystopian future that is always two or three or five years away and always horrible.

Yet "Chappie'' is invested with such humanity, a seemingly effortless delicacy of feeling, that it makes one suspect that, even if movies continue in this machine direction, they'll never fully give way to machines. When you get to the level of art, there's a human strain that's irreducible, that has to be there, or else there's nothing.

And Blomkamp is definitely an artist. It's hard to say how much he's doing consciously and how much he's doing through intuition, but he's doing really interesting things in "Chappie,'' and right from the beginning. For example, he starts the movie with the soundtrack as a heavy presence, as he introduces various plot elements. It's as if everything you're seeing is part of some overarching symphony of meaning.

But then, once he's grounded us in his world, he eases up on the music, and the characters become specific, no longer emblematic. Soon we're embroiled in the struggles of three sets of characters. There's Dev Patel as Deon, a scientist working in the field of artificial intelligence. Specifically, he is working for a company that is providing the city of Johannesburg with a robotic police force, but in his off hours, he has come up with a way to give robots a consciousness.

Then there's Ninja and Yolandi, played by the South African rappers Ninja and Yo-landi Visser, respectively. The two want to pull off a big heist, but the mechanical cops are an insurmountable obstacle. So they get the idea to kidnap Deon, the chief engineer, figuring he can devise a way to switch the robots off. And finally, there's Hugh Jackman as a rival robot-maker, consumed with jealousy and frustration at what Deon has achieved.

The character of Chappie enters the picture when the kidnapped Deon brings him to life at Ninja and Yolandi's hideout. Unlike the usual robot, he comes into the world with the mind of a child, knowing nothing, but with an infinite capacity to learn quickly. The movie becomes, at one level, a struggle for Chappie's soul...

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