“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.
Blomkamp’s first feature, “District 9,” was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, because it was able to graft social concerns onto genre material. His next, 2013’s “Elysium,” was less successful, and now comes “Chappie,” which is cartoonish and preposterous, and not in a good way.
What we have this time is the mildly futuristic story of a police robot turned by its idealistic creator into the world’s first thinking, feeling piece of hardware. It’s a derivative endeavor, with echoes of everything from Dr. Frankenstein’s creation to the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz,” but being unoriginal is far from its biggest problem.
Bad acting isn’t “Chappie’s” worst sin either, though what we see is pretty dire. For one thing, Blomkamp has given two key roles to a pair of fellow South Africans, the rave-rap singers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the group Die Antwoord. Because they’re not actors, it’s no surprise that effective performance is beyond them, but that doesn’t make watching them any less painful.
“Chappie” does have recognizable names like Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver in the cast, and though they lack Die Antwoord’s excuse, it’s safe to say they’ve never given less involving performances. It’s not a good sign when the most memorable character on screen is that robot (a motion capture performance by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley), but there you have it.
The key culprit, inevitably, is auteur Blomkamp, who in this film favors a filmmaking style so sloppy and crude it’s impossible to tell if it’s the result of intention or ineptitude. Either way, in the absence of the strong ideas that animated “District 9,” “Chappie” is close to unwatchable for long stretches of time.
Blomkamp’s work as a co-writer with Terri Tatchell didn’t help his directing efforts. “Chappie’s” script manages to be both overly complicated and simplistic, filled with frantic activity circling a sophomoric core.
The time is the near future, the place Blomkamp’s birthplace of Johannesburg, South Africa. A crime wave of unprecedented ferocity is sweeping the city, and in desperation the local constabulary goes mechanical, turning to what’s called “the world’s first robotic police force.”
These droids, known as Scouts, were designed by brainy twerp Deon Wilson (Patel), who works for a company called Tetravaal Robotics whose all-business CEO Michelle Bradley (Weaver) wouldn’t crack a smile if someone’s life depended on it.
Wilson has been working for years at home on an unfulfilled dream, a robot that can think and feel, that can write music rather than arrest miscreants. But when the all-business Bradley puts the kibosh on this notion, Wilson steals a rejected droid to further experiment on.
Meanwhile (there is always a “meanwhile” in films like this), moronic criminals find themselves desperate for more ways to steal money. Led by Ninja and Yo-Landi (the actors and the criminals share the same names), they decide they need a robot of their own and end up kidnapping both Wilson and his prototype.
When the robot comes to life, it has the consciousness of an infant and is susceptible, like a child, to being influenced by unscrupulous adults.
Though the unexpectedly maternal Yo-Landi wants the best for the creature she has named (“You’re a happy chappie,” she says at one point and it is done), Ninja has no such scruples and is eager to turn Chappie into “Robot Gangster Number One,” the better to further his nefarious schemes.
As if this doesn’t cause enough headaches for Wilson, he has troubles at the office. An unscrupulous co-worker named Vincent Moore (Jackman, worse than you can possibly imagine) has his own robot in development, a big galoot of a machine named Moose, and he will stop at nothing to crush Wilson and destroy Chappie.
All this plays out even messier and less appealing than it sounds, with all kinds of mystifying choices, like pastel-colored automatic weapons and the erratic use of subtitles, adding to the confusion. If “Chappie” accomplishes anything, it’s to make you wish that machines could make movies. They couldn’t be any shoddier than this.
MPAA rating: R for violence, language and brief nudity
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release