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 “District 9’s” subtle apartheid allegory or “Elysium’s” health-care brief, but offering a bizarre performance showcase for the rap-rave group Die Antwoord, Blomkamp’s third feature exhausts its meager ideas and the viewer well before the end of its two-hour running time. 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 “A.I.” to that of the “RoboCop” franchise. Genre completists may be reminded of still more recent dramas — from “Her” and “Transcendence” to “Automata” and “Ex Machina” — that have touched on such heady topics as robot sentience, transferred consciousness, and the always-tricky matter of human-bot relations.
Co-writing with his wife, Terri Tatchell (with whom he also collaborated on “District 9”), 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. Intimidating but not invincible, these heavily armed soldiers have effectively neutralized 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’s 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 bottom-line-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. Unfortunately, he’s then kidnapped by Ninja, Yo-Landi and their accomplice Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who are foolishly convinced that Deon can stop the “robot pigs” with the press of a button. When they realize he has a droid in his possession, they order him to revive it so they can make their own killing machine — and although Deon has no intention of helping them, his own scientific curiosity soon gets the better of him.
In short order, Scout 22’s memory is erased, his damaged parts are repaired, and he’s 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. Like a besotted mother and father, she 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 fill his head with hip-hop slang, teach him to fire a gun, outfit him in tacky gold necklaces and (in one particularly cruel display of tough love) drop him off in one of the sketchier parts of Joburg, where he’s assaulted by hooligans who mistake him for a cop. By treating Chappie as a highly impressionable blank slate — a Candide for the computer age — the movie comes awfully close to playing like a very special dystopian episode of “Extreme Guide to Parenting.”
Just as the concept for “District 9” originated in the 2006 short “Alive in Joburg,” so “Chappie” suggests an extension of images and ideas from three other byte-sized Blomkamp pics: “Tetra Vaal” (2004), “Tempbot” (2006) and especially “Adicolor Yellow” (2006), about an android programmed with enough intelligence and learning ability to dwell among humans permanently. 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 (a sort of loose reworking of Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”). Alas, it’s hard to glean much profundity or poignancy in the battle for Chappie’s soul, given how little of it he evinces onscreen; as written and performed, he comes off as such a tiresome, hyper-aggressive chatterbox that you keep hoping someone will flip his off switch.
Granted, not every artificial intelligence needs to be as compelling as HAL 9000 or as captivating as WALL-E. But those two creations were nothing if not a demonstration of how expressive silence can be, while showing the level of artistry required to imbue a hunk of metal with genuinely lifelike attributes. For better and for worse, Blomkamp and his collaborators (including the visual-effects team of Image Engine and the physical-effects team of Weta Workshop) have given us a frenetic robot protagonist who, when he’s not throwing knives or smashing cars, insists on questioning those around him at every turn, all while bearing horrified witness to the general awfulness of humanity. Before long, Chappie isn’t just asking “What is the Internet?” but “Why do you humans do this?!” — an excellent query, to be sure, but by that point you may feel too enervated to give it the weight it deserves.
There may be an intriguing subtext to the fact that Copley, after so brilliantly morphing into a man-mutant hybrid in “District 9,” has seemed less and 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 evinced 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.
By that point, “Chappie” has long since settled into the groove of a thoroughly competent if pro forma action movie, nimbly shot on location by d.p. Trent Opaloch, coherently assembled by editors Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt, and neatly visualized by production designer Jules Cook as a world of nondescript offices, vast warehouses and one stylish gangster hideaway. Machine guns are fired and bombs are detonated, most of them by Jackman’s one-note bad guy, whose own competing brand of weapon technology is built on the notion that robots must always remain subservient to humans. In a smarter, more nuanced film, Moore 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 proceedings feel awfully short on human engagement overall; Patel is just OK 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). By far the most curious casting choice is that of South African hip-hop artists Ninja and Visser, who have always playfully blurred the line between their onstage and offstage personae. Here, projecting a (somewhat) exaggerated version of their already outlandish identities, they seem more or less of a piece with the scattershot proceedings, and their performances do improve after their shouty, gun-waving histrionics early on. Lending the picture an occasional burst of anarchic energy are Die Antwoord’s numerous contributions to the soundtrack, of which the infernally catchy “Enter the Ninja” is merely the most recognizable.