South African director Neill Blomkamp, a maker of science fiction, has so many cool ideas jammed into his movies that coherence becomes a problem. A secondary problem is that these ideas are suggested by old sci-fi/action movies.
After a strong, out-of-nowhere feature debut with “District 9” (2009) and a bit of a stumble with “Elysium” (2013), his third film “Chappie” exhibits few of the strengths but far more of the weaknesses of his scatter-shot approach.
Here he never quite works his ideas into a smooth storyline. They stick out as undeveloped “cool ideas.”
Blomkamp plunges a viewer into the world of Artificial Intelligence and cyborg crime fighters, which at this point in time has been done to death in sci-fi movies.
Yet he does have a new take on it, one that even develops its own charm (if that word doesn’t seem out of place in discussing sci-fi action). Unfortunately “Chappie” gets bogged down in illogical and jagged plot construction and erratic characterizations that sabotage the film constantly.
The cool idea, explored somewhat in “Her,” is that any sentient being must, in a sense, grow up in the world of its creator. You can load all the data and digital intelligence into such a being yet it must find its way in the real world and understand how humans think and behave to know how to interact with these all-too-often illogical, inconsistent beings.
“Chappie,” in other words, is a coming-of-age robot story.
Chaotic initial sequences introduce you to a crime-ridden Johannesburg of the near future — Blomkamp like Peter Jackson insists on using his native land as a backlot. So Jo-burg authorities have placed robot cops called Scouts on the front lines.
The Scout program is the brainchild of programmer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), highly promoted by his company’s CEO, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Stewing nearby is rival developer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who is pushing his oversized Moose robot cop.
You know you’re in trouble though when Vincent strides around the office packing a mean revolver on his belt. Who wears weapons to work? This is one of too many examples of ham-fisted characterizations in the script by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell.
Well, here comes the most interesting and cool part. Deon wants to put A.I. into these Scouts so they can react with sagacity in policing situations. His boss wants nothing of touchy-feely Scouts and Vincent can only sneer with scorn.
Deon steals a damaged Scout and then transforms it into a real life boy named Chappie (frequently Blomkamp collaborator, actor Sharlto Copley, provides the voice and motion capture work). Through force of highly contrived circumstances, Chappie and briefly Deon get kidnapped by bumbling gangsters who want to use the robot for an elaborate and very unlikely heist.
Here the whole film pretty much comes off the rails because its fictional criminal underworld is populated with highly irritating and implausibly moronic punks. These include Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the music group Die Antwoord, who bring their grating stage personas and names to these characters, plus a more even-keeled colleague Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo).
So Chappie gets mixed messages, to say the least, from Deon’s non-violence to Ninja’s ghetto-punk brutality. Meanwhile Vincent plans his next move.
The script veers all over the landscape from misplaced comedy in the Bringing Up Chappie sequences with “mother” Yolandi and “father” Ninja to head-scratching scenes such as when daddy cheerfully abandons Chappie to be tortured and nearly dismembered by ghetto toughs.
Unlike Christopher Nolan, easily the best science-fiction maker on the planet today, Blomkamp doesn’t seem to know how to bring his many and sometimes conflicting ideas into a unified whole; how to make points that don’t seem either obvious or dismally vague.
Here he wants to discuss topics as varied as corporate malfeasance to social ostracism and what makes a conscience human. But it gets all mixed up in sci-fi nonsense and sledgehammer effects. And the robot coming-of-age gets mightily lost amid silly plots and sillier characters.
Blomkamp never gets a grasp of his material and careening story ideas. The human characters are so poorly sketched that a fine cast can do nothing to bring them alive. And the robot, the only well developed character in the entire movie, gets scuttled by the storyline.
“Chappie” represents a complete waste of a potentially fascinating premise.
Opens: March 6, 2015 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, MRC, Kinberg Genre Productions
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Producers: Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg
Executive producer: Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Jules Cook
Music: Hans Zimmer
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Harvey
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editors: Julian Clarke, Mark Goldblatt
R rating, 120 minutes