South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp is back with his third sci-fi film in a row, "Chappie," a dystopian tale about a police robot programmed to think, learn and feel.
According to movie critics, however, Blomkamp's action-packed exploration of artificial intelligence is lacking smarts of its own.
The Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "'Chappie' is a movie about the evolution of artificial intelligence that's as dumb as a post. It also marks the continuing devolution of the work of director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp." The film is "a derivative endeavor, with echoes of everything from Dr. Frankenstein's creation to the Tin Man," and features "pretty dire" acting, even from recognizable names like Sigourney Weaver, Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman (the latter in a performance "worse than you can possibly imagine").
The underlying issue, Turan says, is that Blomkamp "favors a filmmaking style so sloppy and crude it's impossible to tell if it's the result of intention or ineptitude."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy similarly says, "After the surprise and promise of 'District 9,' this represents a further downward step for director Neill Blomkamp in the wake of the highly uneven 'Elysium.'"
As portrayed by Sharlto Copley via performance capture, the titular bot is "a charmless and irritating bugger," McCarthy says, and most of the other actors "are straitjacketed with unlikable characters notable for their ill-advised judgment." As for the rest of the film, "As the action mounts toward the end, any sense of plausible logistics and physical realities are tossed aside."
The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan calls "Chappie" a "ball of contradiction. It takes the concept of 'Transcendence,' crosses it with the storyline of 'RoboCop,' and then delivers it, seemingly, to the target demographic of 'Short Circuit.' It is, in other words, simultaneously dumb, hyperviolent and cutesy."
O'Sullivan agrees with Turan that Jackman is "simply painful to watch," though Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja (of the South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord) "exude a raw appeal." In the end, "Like Chappie, the movie seems human, but has a cold metal heart."
USA Today's Claudia Puig says, "'Chappie' is meant to inspire questions about what it means to be human, and at times it does. However, director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp doesn't explore its intriguing premise deeply enough."
Puig adds, "The concept is undeniably compelling, but portions of this dystopian action thriller begin to feel like a video game." And while the title character is "endearing, poignant and admirable," she says, Blomkamp "gets mired in too many menacing subplots with cartoonish bad guys."
Not every critic has panned "Chappie," though. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis writes, "This is Mr. Blomkamp's third feature, and he's still finding his way as a director; again and again, as in the past, he struggles with the material, a performance, an idea, the tone or just some blocking .… Yet even at his shakiest, Mr. Blomkamp holds your attention with stories about characters banding together to emerge from a hell not of their own making, a liberation journey that just isn't the same old, same old when a director was born in South Africa."