A movie about a robot policeman given a childlike conscience, Chappie is one of those incongruous Franken-films that's simultaneously bombastically brutal and treacly. Like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial crossed with Transformers, or RoboCop starring Jar Jar Binks, it's a recipe guaranteed to produce aesthetic indigestion.
The third feature from South African director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium), shot with his signature documentary-style hand-held camera urgency, is set in a gang-infested Johannesburg of the near future, where the police employ thousands of "scout" robots on the streets. In the drab cubicle-filled offices of the arms manufacturer who makes the robot guardians, there's a rivalry between two of the engineers. Geeky genius Deon (Dev Patel), who designed the nimble man-sized robots that police the streets, now wants to take it up a notch, uploading enough terabytes of data into a robot's operating system to give it a "conscience." His glowering rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman in a risibly ugly mullet) offers a Razzie-worthy performance as a rogue engineer who has staked his career on a clunky human-operated machine the size of a three-storey building called the Moose.
Profit-focused CEO Michelle (Sigourney Weaver in her stern schoolteacher mode) tells both boys to play within the rules: There's no need for Deon's proposed sensitive robots who like art and poetry, or Vincent's monster machine that looks like a multicar pileup. Naturally, both men disobey the boss, though the Moose arrives, noisily, late in the movie.
No sooner has Deon stolen a damaged robot shell for his pet project, than he gets kidnapped by a team of bottom-feeding gangsters, who force him to bring it to life. The robot's new "mommy," Yolandi, and "daddy," Ninja, played by the eccentrically brilliant South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for the Answer), who also contribute to the soundtrack (otherwise a lot of synth hums and growls, from Hans Zimmer). The craggy string-bean Ninja and the tiny doll-like Yo-Landi Visser make up in presence what they lack in acting chops, giving the film a hope for cult appeal. The helium-voiced Yolandi names the robot Chappie, and starts having maternal, or at least pet-owner, feelings for the metal skeleton (played in motion capture by actor Sharlto Copley). Chappie's main forms of expression are to scuttle about like a nervous puppy and do voice impressions of his new minders.
The near-interminable middle stretch of the film is about the educational options open to fledgling robots. Patel's Deon, while huffily appalled at these crude folk, does nothing to get his robot back, and instead comes and goes like a guilty absentee dad, bringing Chappie children's books and painting sets. Meanwhile, Ninja and his knife-wielding accomplice (Jose Pablo Cantillo) offer Chappie another kind of education, training Chappie to swagger like a "No. 1 robot gangsta" or to kill people by making them "go sleepy-weepy" and wear tacky gold chains, all of which is supposed to be hilarious but isn't.
As an improbable part of his education, they drop their expensive toy in a bad neighbourhood, where he's beaten by thugs who mistake him for a helpless robot cop. At another point, Chappie gets captured by the evil Vincent, and he complains to his foster parents that something bad was done to him by a "man in a van." Again, really not that hilarious.
Movies themselves are a kind of sentient machine, and there is a distinguished lineage of films that have explored these paradoxical creations, from Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still to Hal 9000 and Wall-E. Of the lot, Chappie is a particularly resistible bag of gun-metal plates and bolts, an almost faceless chatterbox, stuck at an adolescent awkward age.
As a director, Blomkamp has a distinctive scrappy visual sensibility and political perspective, but he can't find a heart in Chappie, a movie of poorly motivated one-note characters, illogical action and trite musings on artificial intelligence. Among words that rhyme with the title, "happy" is not at the top of the list.