- RatedNC16 /GenreAction, Thriller
Intelligence, artificial or otherwise, is one of the major casualties of 'Chappie', a robot-themed action movie that winds up feeling as clunky and confused as the childlike droid with which it shares its name.
Mashing together various elements from director Neill Blomkamp's earlier sci-fi pictures (including another prominent role for Sharlto Copley), this South African spin on 'Short Circuit' displays the same handheld immediacy and scene-setting verve as its predecessors, but all in service of a chaotically plotted story and a central character so frankly unappealing, he almost makes Jar-Jar Binks seem like tolerable company by comparison.
Absent is the subtle apartheid allegory in 'District 9' or the healthcare brief of 'Elysium', and the film offers a bizarre performance showcase for the rap-rave group Die Antwoord.
Curiosity will beckon for a few, but this rickety vehicle isn't the one to reverse Sony's recent fortunes.
Starting with his ingenious, justly celebrated debut, 'District 9' (2009), Blomkamp has employed the trappings of science fiction to cast a darkly satirical eye on our troubled species, albeit to steadily diminishing returns.
Like 2013's ambitious, disappointing 'Elysium', this lower-budget, smaller-scaled thriller imagines a society on the brink of collapse, only to resolve its intriguing scenario with a startling lack of follow-through or finesse.
Of course, Blomkamp's previous pictures aren't the only ones to which 'Chappie' genially tips its hat: With its tale of crime-fighting sentinels, one of which is reborn as a sort of silicon-souled Pinocchio, the film effectively connects the narrative circuitry of 'AI' to that of the 'RoboCop' franchise.
Co-writing with his wife, Terri Tatchell, Blomkamp once again employs mock news footage to establish his premise in tense, run-and-gun fashion.
Sometime in the not-so-distant future, Johannesburg is being policed by an army of highly functional, human-sized droids – the brainchild of Deon (Dev Patel), lead designer at a robotics firm called Tetra Vaal.
Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore in 'Chappie'
Intimidating but not invincible, these heavily armed soldiers have effectively neutralised the city's thugs and drug dealers, as we see in an explosive early shootout involving two bottom-feeding gangsters, Ninja and Yo-Landi (played by Die Antoord's Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser).
Although he is proud of his rabbit-eared, battery-operated automatons, Deon yearns to contribute something more meaningful to the world – namely, to develop an android that doesn't just kill, but can read books, appreciate art, and think and talk for itself.
Defying the orders of Tetra Vaal's bottomline-minded CEO, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), and arousing the suspicion of a jealous corporate rival, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), Deon steals the remains of Scout 22, a droid felled in the line of duty, to test his latest experiment in synthetic consciousness.
He is later kidnapped by the gangsters Ninja, Yo-Landi and their accomplice Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), and when they realise he has a droid, they order him to revive it so they can make their own killing machine.
Although Deon has no intention of helping them, his own scientific curiosity soon gets the better of him.
Scout 22 is reborn as Chappie (voiced by Copley), the name given to him by Yo-Landi (after South Africa's most famous brand of bubblegum), who turns out to have quite a maternal side.
Sharlto Copley voices Chappie
Like a besotted mother and father, Yo-Landi and Deon hope to give their frightened, uncomprehending droid a proper upbringing: teaching him English, encouraging him in his artistic pursuits, and letting him know that he can do anything he puts his metallic mind to.
But Ninja and Amerika are determined to turn Chappie into a ruthless robo-killer, and so they teach him to fire a gun and "toughen" him up in other ways.
By treating Chappie as a highly impressionable blank slate, the movie comes awfully close to playing like a very special dystopian episode of 'Extreme Guide to Parenting'.
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.
Alas, he comes off as such a tiresome, hyper-aggressive chatterbox that you keep hoping someone will flip his off switch.
There may be an intriguing subtext that Copley, after so brilliantly morphing into a man-mutant hybrid in 'District 9', has seemed less human in each of Blomkamp's subsequent features – first as a cardboard villain in 'Elysium', and now as a robot's voice.
The filmmaker has long shown a fascination with the body's ability to push against and ultimately transcend its physical limits, and by the end, 'Chappie' seems to look ahead to a possible next phase of human existence, albeit one that feels at once implausibly convenient and dramatically tacked on.
Suffice to say that things seems to conclude precisely at the point where they might have started to get interesting.
Machine guns are fired and bombs are detonated, most of them by Jackman's one-note bad guy. In a smarter, more nuanced film, his character might have come across as a dissenting voice of reason rather than a raving psychopath (who, just in case the mullet wasn't enough of a giveaway, is a religious nut to boot).
The film comes up short on human engagement overall; Patel is just okay as the sympathetic Dr Frankenstein figure, and Weaver, though always a welcome presence, is basically on hand to confer her sci-fi seal of approval (and perhaps remind audiences that Blomkamp has an 'Alien' movie coming up next).
'Chappie' opens 5 March 2015