Chappie is choppy sci-fi fare

Having scored with his first two films, District 9 (2009), which actually earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and Elysium (2013), filmmaker Neill Blomkamp’s latest outing is again firmly rooted in science-fiction.

Set in the near future in Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg, South Africa, Chappie is a Short Circuit/ RoboCop hybrid about a police robot (“Scout #0022,” to be exact) which is reprogrammed to develop artificial intelligence and become self-aware. Unfortunately, the robot falls into the clutches of a group of criminals who want to use it to commit further misdeeds.

The robot is rechristened “Chappie” by its captors, who include Yolandi and Ninja (played by South African rap/ rockers Yolandi Visser and Ninja, nee Watkin Tudor Jones, of Die Antwoord fame). Blomkamp is clearly enamored of them, given the amount of screen-time they receive, but this throws the story off-balance because they are, after all, drug-addled thugs with little regard for anything other than themselves.

If Blomkamp is trying to make veiled observations about society, it is not as successfully conveyed as it was in his earlier films – and a little of Yolandi’s squeakyvoiced baby talk goes a long, long way.

Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel plays Chappie’s inventor, who may be a brilliant scientist but doesn’t exhibit much common sense. Hugh Jackman, as a rival programmer, is pretty much a one-note villain, but it does mark a change of pace for the actor, who previously dealt with boxing robots in Real Steel (2011). Sigourney Weaver, as the head of the corporation, has more to do here than in last year’s Exodus: Gods & Kings, but not much, and is last seen grabbing her coat and purse and fleeing the proceedings. The film’s human characters lack empathy, to say nothing of depth.

The only character with any dimension is actually Chappie, who is “played” (vocally and in motion-capture) by Blomkamp stalwart Sharlto Copley. Chappie sometimes sounds like Robin Williams doing an accent and sometimes like “Ren” from “Ren & Stimpy.”

The action scenes and special effects are capably handled, but otherwise Chappie doesn’t add up to very much. The denouement, which portends a possible (but unlikely) follow-up, is strictly according to genre convention. !