A sci-fi misfire from Neill Blomkamp.


Columbia Pictures

South African director Neill Blomkamp is an ace action man with an unfortunate need to enlighten us about social issues. His first feature, 2009's District 9, did this in a clever way, echoing the horrors of apartheid by showing us a populace of alien creatures stranded in Johannesburg and confined to squalid townships by their contemptuous human overlords. District 9 was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and allowed Blomkamp to go Hollywood in a big way. His next film, the twerpy Elysium, tackled the hot-button issue of healthcare and didn't make back its big budget in this country (although it cleaned up overseas).

Now we have Chappie, a movie with even deeper thoughts on its mind, none of them new. What does it mean to be human? the picture asks. And if God is so great, why must we die? Also, why do film scripts always have to make sense? Why shouldn't non-actor pop stars be given a shot at lead roles?  And why don't we see more rubber chickens on the big screen? Blomkamp remains expert at blending CGI characters into real-world environments, and the action scenes are once again first-rate. But it's still a very silly movie.

Once again we're in the director's native Johannesburg, in a future time not so far from our own that fashion holdouts don't still sport mullets. An executive named Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, in a nothing role) presides over a company called Tetra Vaal Robotics, whose weaponized robots have taken over municipal police duties with great success—the crime rate has never been lower. But now a Tetra Vaal engineer named Deon (Dev Patel) has made an AI breakthrough that could create a more peaceable breed of robots that are actually sentient—that have a soul. They might in fact be capable of, oh, writing poetry, for example.

Bradley, a bottom-line capitalist, sees no need for this sort of robot. But she's also leery of giving free rein to another employee, a violent ex-soldier named Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who's built a huge battle 'bot (or possibly just rented it from the first RoboCop movie) capable of wreaking state-of-the-art destruction.

Deon is kidnapped by a trio of scummy criminals led by Ninja and Yolandi (uninventive names for characters played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the South African electro-rap group Die Antwoord, whose merchandising logos feature throughout). In their dismal headquarters, they compel Deon to build his nice-guy robot for use in their own nefarious endeavors. When this mechanical entity springs to life (his first word out of the box is "Whoa!"), Yolandi and Ninja take on the roles of good angel and bad angel. Yolandi names the titanium creature Chappie (a mo-cap performance by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley). She tells him to call her "Mommy," and before long is reading him sweet bedtime stories. Ninja, on the other hand, wants to toughen Chappie up, and soon has him draped in old-school bling and deploying knives, nunchuks, and flying shuriken. Deon, for his part, teaches Chappie how to paint (urging him not to let the gangsters "ruin your creativity") and also regales him with the aforementioned rubber chicken.

A perhaps unnecessary complication here is an even scummier gang that, with their tats and leathers and eccentric hairstyles, are clearly awol from a Mad Max movie. (Oddly, their muscle-bound leader speaks in subtitles, even though his English seemed clear enough to me.) These yobbos' chief functions are to grunt and glower and act as targets for the robot police who soon come helicoptering in with guns blazing.

Blomkamp wrote the script for this movie with his wife, Terri Tatchell, also his collaborator on District 9. Like that movie, this one has a cluttered wasteland look; unlike that film, though, Chappie seems at least one rewrite short of adding up. After Ninja and Yolandi have kidnapped Deon, he asks them to let him return to Tetra Vaal for a bit—and they say sure. In another scene we see Vincent spying on Deon through a pair of binoculars—even though he seems to be only about a hundred yards away.  

Then there are the actors. Visser projects considerable warmth as a tough chick feeling the first stirrings of maternal concern, but a little of Ninja's frothing menace goes a long way. And Jackman is wasted as a character who's called upon to do virtually nothing besides rant and snarl. The central problem, however, is Chappie himself. Unlike Star Wars' personable C-3PO, this latter-day 'bot is a pain, twitching and leaping and yammering away non-stop. Even the similarly annoying Jar Jar Binks might well tell him to cool it.