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‘Chappie” could almost be described as “Three Thugs and a Baby Bot.” Though the story raises Isaac Asimov-like issues of good vs. evil in the context of robot technology and its human creators, philosophy takes a back seat as family sentiments sashay to center stage. The titular character is a robot and, having been “born” into the world with a conscious mind, Chappie wants to be loved, understood and driven around in an SUV while head-splitting rap booms out over the speakers. So far, pretty adorable, I guess.

But not for long. “Chappie” is heavily political, with a low, persistent hum of colonialist undertones despite it being set in the very near future of 2016. If left to his own, ah, devices, Chappie could have become a happy kid, albeit one made of titanium and programmed with artificial intelligence. However, the adults (read: white people with guns) step in and teach Chappie to “be strong and tough,” use weapons and kill the supposed enemy in the name of protecting his “own people.”

After that, there’s no turning back for Chappie. He has morphed into a soldier, and the more he blows up tanks and guns down platoons of other robots, the more his guardians cheer him on. In the process, Chappie has less freedom, his independence is thwarted and he almost stops thinking for himself.

Chappie
Rating
Run Time 120 mins
Language English (subtitled in japanese)
Opens May 23

“Chappie” is the latest from South African filmmaker wunderkind Neil Blomkamp, who wowed the world with “District 9” in 2009, treaded water for a bit with “Elysium” in 2013 and is now stirring up some controversy with this bot fable. U.S. and European critics seem split down the middle between love and hate, but almost everyone agrees that Blomkamp has made some pretty bad choices.

No arguments from me — there are 100 things Blomkamp could have done differently. Exhibit A: Chappie’s clunky looks. He’s too metallic and industrial, with none of the healing huggabilty of Baymax. Kids will find it hard to warm to him, much less take to Chappie’s forbidding and scary bot voice (by Sharlto Copley). Exhibit B: Hugh Jackman appears in a fright wig so awful it could give viewers nightmares. Jackman plays a villain here, but it’s hard to be scared by anything other than his hair.

Blomkamp scored a win, however, in casting Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as Deon, Chappie’s creator. Deon works as an AI engineer in a Johannesburg company that manufactures police robots (read: Robocop rip-offs) but he wanted to design a more complex bot with emotions and a conscience. Chappie was his secret project — his little baby. Then a trio of gangsters kidnap them both to use in a drug war.

Deon isn’t noble or heroic. He’s not going to fight on Chappie’s behalf, but he can’t help showing off his baby and teaching Chappie to read and draw, like a doting dad. In short, Deon is a geek and morals just aren’t part of his mindscape.

Which brings us to the huge geek factor at work in “Chappie.” Sony Pictures is the big Hollywood distributor of this movie, and it makes sure you know that on both the hardware and software fronts. You’ll see a sizable pile of the company’s electronic gadgets. (Deon just can’t keep his hands off the camcorder).

You’ll also be inducted into the world of Die Antwoord, the South African rap duo of Yolandi and Ninja. They just happen to be part of Sony’s music label, and they also opt to be Chappie’s adoptive “parents” in this movie, doing their best to raise their son into a murdering, destructing, bomb-detonating thug bot.

They wear T-shirts inscribed with the Chappie logo and make him listen to their own brain cell-obliterating music. This is the kind of gimmicky detail that geeks love to love — I know, because my 24-year-old geeky cousin told me. For the uninitiated, however, it’s all a bit sad.

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