MasterChugs Theater: ‘Chappie’

Sometimes, Chappie is Robocop.

Sometimes, Chappie is Frankenstein.

Sometimes, Chappie is The Wizard of Oz.

Sometimes, Chappie is Short Circuit.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, Chappie isn’t great. Mainly because you’ve seen it before. Sad face emoticon.

Starting with his ingenious, justly celebrated debut, District 9, director Neill 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 but 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.

Audiences have come to grips with the notion of cyborg and/or mechanical crime fighters, and Chappie merely flips the equation, with geeky Johannesburg police force artificial intelligence engineer Deon (Dev Patel) announcing that one of his robot cops has crossed the line to become a thinking and feeling being. This is too much for hard-line engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who believes that the man-made soldiers are there to obey orders and not think for themselves; they have, after all, helped bring down the violent crime rate in Johannesburg. He’s also devised a giant new crime buster named The Moose, which his boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver), refuses to activate. But you don’t introduce a critter like this unless you intend to use him later on.

Unfortunately, much of the interim time is spent in the company of a trio of unsavory punks who know little but how to strike menacing poses, shriek threats and brandish weapons. In deep on the wrong side of a debt to a local crime lord, skinny and stupid Ninja and motherly punk Yo-Landi (played by the self-same Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the rave rap group/foreign-brand bootleg-ICP Die Antwoord), along with relatively even-keeled cohort Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), manage to kidnap Chappie — whom Deon has just begun to teach about the human world — with the idea of using the robot to pull off a major heist.

As the action mounts toward the end, any sense of plausible logistics and physical realities are tossed aside, as characters just sort of magically get from point A to B and end up right where they need to be to force an encounter or showdown. When The Moose is finally unleashed, its destructive power proves rather less all-encompassing than suspected. And while the renegade, anti-establishment outlook of the director, who wrote the script with his District 9 partner Terri Tatchell, remains unmistakable, it’s so pro forma and predictable here as to feel rote.

With the partial exception of Visser, whose punky veneer nicely melts into motherly concern and warmth, the actors are straitjacketed with unlikable characters notable for their ill-advised judgment. No one’s any fun here, even in their villainy. With the exception of the police office, most of the action takes place in particularly unsavory sections of Jo’burg, and the film at times sports a wan video look, especially in certain daytime exteriors.

There is nothing original and interesting about Chappie. It’s a hodgepodge of better science-fiction films from yesteryear whose films have been imitated countless times to no avail. If it is a satire, it’s message is unclear. If it is an action movie, there is no momentum. Chappie’s sole payoff is the special effects achieved to create its titular (or some might say eponymous) character. Unfortunately, the film is style way over substance in the case of Blomkamp’s third full-length feature. After following up the universally-beloved District 9 with a lukewarm received for Elysium, his latest film isn’t necessarily a make-it-or-break-it moment, but dilutes a bit the warmly-received news that he is taking on Alien.