★★★ ½
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Looking back on the ghosts of movie robots past, it’s easy to see that we often fall in love with humanity’s mechanical counterparts. The singularly sweet Wall-E is brought back from the brink of mindless droid-hood by Eva’s touch, persistence and love. R2-D2 and C-3PO reign supreme in the ranks of sidekick pairs because of their sarcastic, worrywart ways. But director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) takes loveable machines to the next level in Chappie. Framed by the unique zef culture of South Africa, lurching between bonkers set pieces, the film breathes some life into a frequently predictable storyline.

Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) plays Deon, one of the lead engineers of the scout robots that make up the majority of the Johannesburg police force. Through “live” footage of the droids working in the field alongside human officers and news broadcasts featuring real-life anchors (such as Anderson Cooper), the film goes to great lengths to establish the ramifications of this transition, particularly hammering on the question of whether we can trust a non-human in a position of power. And yes, we can, the film seems to argue at first, as the programming chip for the droids is safely locked away and can only be accessed by a few.

Deon has other plans, though—as does his nemesis, Vincent (Hugh Jackman). While the former works tirelessly to develop a robot that has its own thoughts and ideas, and eventually breaks rules to see it through, the latter glowers from a distance. His own project, laughably called “the Moose,” allows a robot to be controlled only through a human consciousness—and it isn’t getting the same funding or recognition. So Vincent squeezes a rugby ball and seethes in his tiny office before utterly losing it in a Red Bull-induced rage. Neither character’s motivations are believable or developed, but this works in favor of the wonky hijinks in Blomkamp’s pop-sci-fi world.

The conscience-driven creation Chappie (voice and motion-captured by Sharlto Copley) takes a turn for the worse when it collides with the real world. A ragtag band of criminals—again, with ridiculous and far-fetched motivations—decide to kidnap Deon and, eventually, Chappie, to make a few million dollars and settle a score with some rivals.

But we’re kept on the hook—fascinated, even—because the film’s visual parameters are drawn from zef. It’s a style that is at once modern and trashy, typical of the white lower-middle class in South Africa. Chappie brings this culture to the forefront by having the notorious zef rave-rap duo Die Antwoord portray these criminals. Their fortress is a dilapidated building with paintings of bright, distorted doodles. They tote automatic weapons and gold chains. They wear smiley-face T-shirts and haircuts that look done by children. It’s no random spectacle, either. Their aesthetic is tied to an attitude about the function of art.

In an interview with Spin in 2012, one half of the duo, Ninja said, “People are unconscious and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone.” The film seems to adopt this mentality of “art as a shock machine.” An American audience will be jolted by the audacity and ease with which Ninja and Yolandi navigate their, and our, world. The idea of literally jump-starting consciousness weaves in perfectly with the main thread of the narrative.

While the sci-fi elements take off wildly down several avenues, there are also many socio-political agendas vying for attention. In the scenes between Deon, Chappie and his “parents,” the film frequently steps over the mark with its emphasis of nurture over nature in the context of class. The poor, it seems to say, can only raise criminals, and well-off engineer Deon is heralded for trying to save Chappie from that path.

Chappie also taps into to the growing fear of police brutality, and where it could go in the future. This is driven home when the dad points to a desecrated dead dog and then to another dog—caged, hungry, but surviving—and asks Chappie, “Do you want to be this dog or this dog?” As the robot succumbs to the criminal influence of its parents, the most hilarious and the most heartbreaking scenes take place. This is a more wrenching film than you might imagine—in fact, it’s downright painful, and the conclusion of Chappie’s grueling learning curve will leave your jaw on the floor of the theater.

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Aliens invading Earth is an old shtick. Who knew it could still be so fun to watch? This kids’ movie from DreamWorks adds Oh (Jim Parsons) to the pantheon of darling, accident-prone, animated outsiders. Oh struggles to fit in as one of the Boov, an alien squid-like species with a penchant for hover-crafts and an exacting form of English—“Can I be on the out now?”—that has invaded our planet. The misfit-youth theme gathers steam when Oh meets Tip (Rihanna), whose mother has been relocated with the rest of her species to the human territory on Earth. Both isolated, in their own ways, from what “home” is, the two are able to connect in a series of wacky, hilarious adventures. The voice-acting rivals pairs such as Shrek and Donkey, and Rihanna’s music, which permeates the soundtrack, works perfectly for the pair’s dynamic, mixing tender ballads and upbeat party mixes. I couldn’t imagine a better Saturday afternoon for a kid than one spent watching an alien squid and a human teen become friends and hover-drive “The Slushious.”