Question: What do you get when you combine Short Circuit with Robocop and the intent to take the results seriously?
Be advised, of course, that going forward, there will be spoilers aplenty, folks. So, quick sum-up for those who may want such a thing: I really enjoyed this movie and would highly recommend seeing it if you're looking for something to makes you think for a change.
Whereas Short Circuit was a movie about a robot who gained sentience where everything was pretty much played for laughs, essentially a straight-up comedy, and Robocop was meant as satire and social commentary about how we kinda were in the 1980s, CHAPPiE takes a good many elements from both and plays it relatively seriously, asking what it would be like if this really happened instead of playing it mostly for laughs or using it to make statements about how us meatbags are scum.
As the story begins, we find that a roboticist named Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, has created a robotic police drone with a surprisingly advanced artificial intelligence system, which has been mass produced and deployed in Johannesburg, South Africa, by VaalTech Robotics. It seems that Scout #022, as our title character is originally known, has the worst luck ever, and keeps getting the crap kicked out of it. In fact, we see him get busted up beyond repair pretty much first thing in the movie, after the exposition about how the Scout droids have otherwise virtually eliminated violent crime in the city. Deon, meanwhile, has been developing the next step in the Artificial Intelligence program for the Scout droids in a bid to make them think like real, living people.
Back in his apartment after having #022 scrapped, Deon pulls an all-nighter and finally makes his upgraded AI work just before he needs to be to work the next day. When he arrives, he goes to tell his boss, played by Sigourney Weaver, to tell her what he's done and ask if he can use the scrapped out remains from the night before to test the program on. Upon being rejected, Deon decides he's going to steal the parts and try it anyway, as he's got nothing to lose. As it happens, #022's battery, while still intact and fully charged, is fused to the chassis of the robot and can't be replaced or recharged, so even if the new AI doesn't work, the robot body will shut down permanently when the battery runs out in five days or so, give or take.
Throughout the film, Deon is hounded by fellow roboticist Vincent Moore, played by Hugh Jackman, who has designed the Moose enforcer tank, which bears no small resemblance to the ED-209 in the original Robocop movie. The major difference, as I understand it, is that the Moose needs a human pilot, whereas the ED-209 was entirely autonomous. Moore wants to show off how his kill-o-tron is a good addition to the scouts. While the boss, as well as the police department, rightly keep saying no, Moore goes rouge as well, doing everything to sabotage Deon's Scouts.
The plot only really gets started when Deon himself is kidnapped by Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika, three drug dealers who need to raise $20 million to pay off a drug lord, who's shipment they'd wrecked while attempting to deliver it. Ninja and Yolandi are, from what I can tell, rappers essentially playing themselves in this move, which really makes them fit their roles well. Amerika is played by Jose Pablo Cantillo, who also does an amazing job.
As the three force Deon to reactivate and reprogram #022 for them, they explain that they want to use it as a means to steal the money they need to pay off their boss. Deon, in return, explains that his new program will allow the robot to think for itself and make it's own decisions, and that once it's turned on, it can't be turned off again, so once the battery dies, that's it.
Along the way, there's quite a lot of debate about how #022, who eventually gets named CHAPPiE by Yolandi, should be taught about what it means to be sentient, conscious, and essentially a person, albeit a mechanical one built in a factory. Deon wants CHAPPiE to be a peaceful, productive member of society, just like the organic beings he'll be pretty much living with. Yolandi and the others, meanwhile, want to teach him to be a tough, streetwise sort who helps them with their criminal ways, seeing it as a fitting way to re-purpose the junked police droid. And yes, I'd say that CHAPPiE is a he, as he's played by Sharlto Copley.
In the course of his development, CHAPPiE finds emotions, personality, and a love of painting from Yolandi, primarily, but also from Deon. From Ninja and Amerika, he learns to be something of a fighter as well, that the real world is not all sunshine, flowers and bunny rabbits, as Deon spends most of the movie trying to convince him.
As the final act approaches, Ninja and Amerika dump CHAPPiE in a bad neighborhood, in front of a street gang that doesn't realize that he's not exactly what he seems. As a result, the gang pummels the robot, doing quite a bit of damage. On his way back to the hideout with Yolandi and the others, CHAPPiE gets kidnapped by Moore as well, who needs a special chip called a God Key that Deon left in the robot's head when Ninja chased him off the first of many times at the start of the movie. Moore wants the God Key so he can send out a software update of his own, which will knock out all the Scouts in town with the intent of forcing the police and his boss to activate his Moose tank to take care of the trouble. Alongside this, Moore intends to call the Scout program as a whole into question, because by this point, Ninja has promised CHAPPiE a new body for when his battery dies, and he's willing to help them rob an armored car to get the money to buy one from VaalTech.
Part of the climax involves CHAPPiE becoming his own person and deciding that all humans are liars because Ninja lied to him about getting a more functional body and Deon, who finally got a gun for the end, had neglected to tell his creation that he didn't know how to make the repairs or do a transfer. I can at least sort of forgive Deon, because he didn't have much a chance to say anything, and even if he had, there was no way of knowing how far or how fast CHAPPiE would develop before his battery died.
At the end, the Moose is launched with Moore piloting it by way of a special neural interface helmet that gives him complete control over the kill-o-tron. Moore does manage to take out most of the drug ring that CHAPPiE and the others are involved with, but he has his sights set on doing away with CHAPPiE as well, because a fully sentient robot would be a huge threat to his own project. Moore's violent rampage kills or gravely wounds our heroes, with Amerika and Yolandi dead, Deon mortally wounded, and Ninja about to sacrifice himself to save CHAPPiE and Deon from Moore.
The ending, though, is where this movie really gives us something to think about. In his efforts to save himself, CHAPPiE figures out how to digitize living minds and transfer them between devices, partly by way of the interface helmets for the Moose. This was conveniently tested on Yolandi, who CHAPPiE sees as his mother, and it seems that a person's consciousness fits on a thumb drive. Hey, I've seen sillier things in sci-fi movies. Just check out the time travel mechanic in a movie called Time Chasers.
The big reveal of all this comes as CHAPPiE saves his creator by putting his mind into the one robot body they've got available to them before he dies. The new Robo-Deon then tells CHAPPiE that they can do the same for him by transmitting him into a still otherwise-functional Scout that was deactivated during Moore's attack.
All in all, this is a movie I'd certainly recommend to my parents and Internet buddies, many of whom I know are into this sort of thing. It raises a lot of good philosophical questions, like just what is this thing we call life, anyway? Or what happens if we actually do manage to code it into a computer? If we can put our own brains into computers like this, should we?
Deep stuff, really. It made for a great movie, one I'd really recommend checking out. It's also one of those that I'm surprised is already in second-run theaters, at least in my area. Are there that many other, more “A-list” movies coming out this time of year?
Anyway, I'm glad I ponied up the ten bucks it cost me to go see this movie, and I'd recommend it to most folks I know.
Five of five stars.
Sigourney Weaver as Michelle Bradley
Hugh Jackman as Vincent Moore
Sharlto Copley as CHAPPiE
Dev Patel as Deon Wilson
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Rated R for violence, gore, brief nudity
Runtime: 120 minutes
Released March 6, 2015
J. Michael Shearer's Viewing: 9:30 PM April 8, 2015 showing at West Mall 7