Since writer-director Neill Blomkamp stormed theaters in 2009 with his fresh, gorgeous and socially conscious, lowish-budget sci-fi movie District 9, we’ve been hoping for something as good or better. His high budget, big star follow-up Elysium made major pronouncements about class warfare and universal health care but made zero sense, let alone make an emotional connection. Those pulling for Blomkamp’s third effort being the charm are in for the biggest letdown yet with his latest glimpse into the future, Chappie, another slickly-filmed action movie filled with big ideas, nice flashes of humor, schizoid changes of tone, and blunted impact.
In the movie, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell and set in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016, Dev Patel plays a visionary engineer-designer who has topped himself by creating the next evolution in his successful crime-stopping robot police force called Scouts. Cue the invention of the title A.I. character, brought to motion capture life by Blomkamp’s constant collaborator Sharlto Copley. Our titular hero is a frenzied, childish, ultimately off-putting Short Circuit-type ‘bot that not only busts thugs, gangbangers, and drug-pushers but also has the ability to think, feel and lay on the charm. Chappie and his creator forge the expected dad-son — or, rather, Pinocchio and Geppetto bond — but ‘bot-blocking the nerdy young engineer every step of the way is rival robot-maker and mullet-rocking Hugh Jackman, who hankers to replace Scouts with full-on militarized robots. In a movie filled with actors struggling to make something out very little, Jackman delivers an especially unsubtle, one note performance – and a decidedly nasal one note, at that.
Anyway, the robot matures quickly and undergoes growing pains like hurling knives and wrecking cars, all the while asking annoying questions, making him about as endearing as, well, other people’s children. Or Jar-Jar Binks. The movie’s overstuffed two hours are filled with explosions, gunfire, chases, and even a guest-starring appearance by Sigourney Weaver (who may be involved with Blomkamp’s next movie project, an Alien sequel). But nothing in this misfire, no matter how technically dazzling, generates a sense of wonder or freshness. How could it when we’ve already seen the same thing done better in the original Robocop or Wall-E? You may find yourself wanting every character in this thing to die horribly. And quickly. *½