The set-up for director Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie” suggests his first-rate debut, “District 9”: Johannesburg, South Africa, has become a dreary and dangerous city where authorities maintain tenuous order in the near future.
But the execution recalls his second-rate follow-up, “Elysium”: A good idea dissolves in violence and mayhem, capped by impossible heroism and infantile wish-fulfillment.
Blomkamp also wrote the script for “Chappie” with Terri Tatchell, his “District 9” collaborator. It begins with the creation of artificial consciousness, as programmer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) figures out how to give a robot policeman a mind of its own.
He wants to develop this Chappie (Sharlto Copley) into a being capable of appreciating art and poetry. Three gangsters who kidnap them want to turn it into an unstoppable weapon, so they can pull off a 20 million rand heist to pay the crazy thug they owe. Meanwhile, programmer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) wants to divert money from the droid-cop line to Moose, a monstrous super-robot that will fly and rain death on crooks from above.
Absurdities mount faster than they can be recounted. The head of the robotics company (Sigourney Weaver) repeatedly tells Moore she has no interest in Moose, though she authorized millions to build it. Her company makes only weapons but has less security than a Home Depot: No one on the front gate, no one in the building at night, no one to notice a system-wide override that affects every robot cop. A helmet designed to read human neurotransmitters magically works the same way on a robot’s circuitry.
The writers quickly establish an emotional component. We feel for Chappie, whose battery will run down permanently in five days; he experiences mortality as soon as he’s born. (Yes, the designers built robots whose batteries could not be replaced.) Copley gives an expressive performance with body language and voice, and we sympathize with the quick-adapting “infant” who wants to please his crooked adoptive parents.
But the other characters never rise above stereotypes, and we’re asked to sympathize with these three crazies because Chappie calls them Mommy and Daddy, and because there are even more depraved monsters roaming the city.
Blomkamp revs the pace up to keep weaknesses from showing, but that doesn’t work. The big battle scene has laughable inconsistencies: Characters get shot point-blank in the chest or blasted through walls without dying or even passing out, and a bullet through a spurting leg artery doesn’t leave the victim limping a day later. With humans this unstoppable, who needed robot cops in the first place?
A South African programmer gives consciousness to a robot policeman, who’s kidnapped by criminals planning to train him to commit a crime.
C STARS: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver.
DIRECTOR: Neill Blomkamp.
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes.
RATING: R (violence, language and brief nudity).