With Chappie, director Neill Blomkamp returns to a futuristic South African setting of Johannesburg, just like with his hugely successful debut movie, District 9. This time the country's law and order is upheld by a police force of robots with artificial intelligence, called Scouts.
The artificial intelligence engineer of the Scouts, Deon Wilson (played by Dev Patel), makes an announcement that one of his robots has crossed over the line that separates robotic intelligence and human. Chappie, the almost human AI robot, wants to learn all there is about becoming human.
But another engineer, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), believes that robots should be built to receive commands, not to become sentient and think for themselves.
It's a premise that certainly had promise. After all, the sci-fi world is filled with other examples of the moral and human question first posed by Philip K. Dick in his story that inspired the movie Blade Runner, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"
Other examples include Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, going through a trial whether he is a thinking, free being, or just property of Star Fleet that can be switched off and taken apart at any time.
Another movie that touches on this same theme, and which many think much more successfully, is RoboCop, where a man is brought back from the dead as a cyborg - but where does the machine end and the man begin?
Unfortunately, the theme seems to have not been explored to its fullest potential in Chappie. Numerous critics have been saying that the movie lacks real depth and story. Many are calling it a rip-off of Blomkamp's previous movies District 9 and Elysium. Which is quite understandable given Blomkamp's deep and personal history and experience living during apartheid. But it begs the question; does he have any more to offer?
Regardless of how you feel about the story, one thing is for sure, Chappie makes us take a good look at what it means to be human through the evolution of the sentient robot, Chappie.
Josh Lasser of IGN observes, "Chappie starts out as little more than a rapidly progressing infant and we get to see him grow up over the course of the film... The opening of the film tells us that Chappie's existence radically alters the world, but what we aren't told is how. That is left up to our imagination... "
Indeed, the movie brings up many important questions about how humans should handle technology. Is it responsible to bulldoze through technological advancements without considering the consequences? What happens when technology that was supposed to be beneficial falls out of the hands of those who would do good with it?
In true Blomkamp fashion, many of these questions are left hanging for the audience to ponder. Although the ambiguity of what may happen in the future may have worked for District 9 as a storytelling device, in Chappie it just feels messy.
Other reviews agree with this verdict. As James Rocchi, of The Wrap put it, "Neill Blomkamp's robot is the prize in a tug-of-war between scientists, corporate scions and criminals, but special effects can't make up for the lack of story and auto-recycling."
Justin Chang of Variety blames the movie's shortcomings on poor character development, particularly on the lead sentient robot himself. "At the script's core is the philosophical quandary of whether Chappie can develop a mind and conscience of his own, defy the gangsters' negative influence, and keep his promise to Deon that he won't hurt anyone (a sort of loose reworking of Isaac Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics'). Alas, it's hard to glean much profundity or poignancy in the battle for Chappie's soul, given how little of it he evinces onscreen," he wrote.
Most reviewers, like Travis Clark of Indiwire, agree that it's high time that Blomkamp move away from his niche comfort zone and begin exploring new material. Because obviously, the themes which made his debut so successful, are not giving his work the same magic as they did initially. "Blomkamp may have found his groove with a genre often under-served by Hollywood projects, but he may have pushed the same material too far," Clark said.