But the ineptitude of the human performances in Chappie is by design. In Blomkamp’s latest, the mortals and their particular quirks take a backseat to the titular robot, who is the first, according to the film’s eminently contemporary tale, to possess consciousness. Charged with raising the precocious, emotional robot like a child, Chappie's human guardians fail him every which way. But their repeated let-downs are only fitting for a story about the universal experience of growing up, even for one that replaces flesh and bone with titanium, and a fully active brain with a computer chip. Coming of age is messy, painful, and cartoonishly difficult—Chappie’s artistic choice to makes its humans caricatures only strengthens its argument for the transcendence of humanity all the way into cold steel.
Like so many other classic stories about childhood and trauma—Matilda, The Little Princess, almost anything out of Charles Dickens—Chappie grows up in a harsh environment dominated by foster parents who are ill-suited to the responsibility of raising a child. In 2016 in Johannesburg, a weapons manufacturer called Tetra Vaal Industries has successfully equipped the city with the world’s first all-robot police force. Newsreel footage shows that the world is generally content with this development: Crime has plummeted, and the titanium-clad robots ably shield human bodies from harm. Yet their creator, an idealistic young engineer named Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is eager to make his artificially-intelligent creations fully intelligent. He devises a program to instill consciousness in his robots, and when his bottom line-fixated boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), forbids him from installing the software, he secretly programs a damaged, child-like droid.
His grand, idealistic plans to rear Chappie on a steady diet of poetry go sour when a group of South African gangsters (Ninja and Yolandi as Die Antwoord, plus Jose Pablo Cantillo) kidnap Patel and forcibly adopt Chappie. In a rushed bit of narrative lead-up and one prolonged, exquisite action sequence between the group and the South African police, the film explains how the gang owe a local mob leader $20 million. The group lands upon the brilliant idea that Patel might have a “remote control” for turning the droids off during a grand heist; when he says that's impossible, they take Chappie for their personal bodyguard instead.
Blomkamp’s first feature-length movie, the Oscar-nominated District 9, implicated several levels of bureaucracy in perpetrating crimes of xenophobia and speciesism. Though the android-cop premise is ripe for a further exploration of profiling, Chappie is more about the unjust rule of law in the household than on the streets, but it's an angle that's just as brutal. Wilson wants to raise Chappie to read and paint; Ninja insists he learn how to walk with swagger, swear, and shoot. The disparities in their educational messaging, moreover, have some severe consequences: Wilson makes Chappie promise he will realize his full potential and never shoot a gun; Ninja convinces him that throwing switchblades into people’s necks just puts them to sleep. The simplistic extremes in styles turn these older characters into caricatures, but what child doesn’t remember growing up in terms of dizzying highs and emotionally gutting catastrophes? The lack of subtlety is the element that makes the story so painfully familiar.