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

Byline: Mick LaSalle

'Chappie'

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 between the good parent, Deon and the bad parent, Ninja, with Yo-landi as the surprisingly affectionate mother figure, somewhere in the middle.

This is probably as good a place as any to say that Yo-landi, in her feature debut, is a real find, with a childlike voice and appearance, but with a whole atmosphere of corruption about her. Imagine Giulietta Masina from the Fellini films, only alarming and futuristic.

Most of "Chappie'' involves Ninja's efforts to push the naive and pliable Chappie into crime, and Deon's to move him toward good. One of the film's marvels is how well Chappie is a developed, endearing character. He's a digital creation, but Sharlto Copley, in a motion-capture suit, created his movements and also gave him a voice.

There's something alive here -- about childhood, about coming into the world innocent, about parenting, about unconditional love ... "Chappie'' has an unconscious life to it. Unlike most modern sci-fi films, which deal entirely in external movements, there's an internal quality about this. There's a tangle of feelings, impulses and ideas at work here that can't completely be untied or explained but that identifies the story as something coming from a real place within the filmmaker, a place beyond intention.

Indeed, that you can't quite say exactly what "Chappie'' means, but you know and feel that it means something, tells you that it's operating on a level beyond consciousness. It's what makes it a work of art. So it's fitting that, even on a plot level, Blomkamp is too smart to settle for pat answers. For example, if Chappie is virtuous, then he shouldn't be a criminal, but Blomkamp doesn't go the other way and say he should be a robot policeman. He's operating from a broader and more humane point of view.

And it's a good sci-fi action movie, too. Far be it from me to give this movie the kiss of death by making it seem too serious for its core audience. "Chappie'' is everything it has to be -- but it's everything it should be, too.
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Title Annotation:Living
Author:LaSalle, Mick
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 6, 2015
Words:755
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