Wrongheaded in conception, eye-rolling in execution, Chappie is a childish blend of the cute robot goofiness of Short Circuit and the bloody-minded mayhem of Robocop. It never finds its sweet spot and never, for one moment, works.
Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9, has utterly exhausted his supply of South African sci-fi ideas with this disaster, an excruciating two hours of your life you will fear, quite rightly, you will never get back.
A couple of years in the future, robots have taken over a chunk of Johannesburg’s police force, and judging from Hugh Jackman, mullet haircuts have staged a comeback. Jackman, third-billed here, plays a weapons designer whose gigantic, heavily-beweaponed war robot is nothing the local police want anything to do with. They’re happy with the skinny, self-contained Scout robots that Deon (Dev Patel) designed, which has Jackman’s Vincent Moore bitter and resentful.
And Deon’s not done. He is on the verge of a sentient robot, one who can think and feel. If only the boss (Sigourney Weaver) would give him permission.
Blomkamp’s muse, his fellow South African Sharlto Copley, is the voice of Chappie. And a South African white rapper named Ninja plays…Ninja, a low-rent gang-banger who is plainly decades older than everybody he hangs with and those his gang is at war with. He dreams up a scheme to kidnap the chief robot designer so that he can turn off the robocops for a heist. That’s how Deon and his sentient prototype, which Ninja the gangster’s girlfriend (Yo-Landi Visser) promptly names “Chappie” the moment Deon boots him up, fall into their hands.
Cloyingly, Chappie behaves like a shy puppy the moment he comes to life. Amusingly, he picks up some of the profane, violent and guttural Afrikaner slang and accent from Ninja and Yolandi, whom he calls “Daddy” and Mommy.”
Yolandi, armed to the teeth and covered in tattoos, develops an instant mommy bond with the gadget that looks like the armed and armored machine that has been a menace to her and her kind. That’s head-slappingly hilarious. The head-slapping continues when the gangsters — get this — LET their scientist/kidnap-victim go, because he promises to return and “teach” Chappie language and morality and art every day after work. Kidnappings of the future are a nine to five commitment, I guess.
Ninja tries to overcome the robot’s reluctance to take up violence and crime by showing Chappie that the “real world” is dog-eat-dog. Deon tries to get the mincing machine to master landscape painting.
Blomkamp wrings intentional laughs out of Chappie’s ineptitude at a life of crime, and unintentional laughs at pretty much everything else. How to convince Chappie to kill? Tell him he’s to “Make them go sleepy-weepy.”
This “The Education of Little Chappie” drags on and on, with passing suggestions of how morality is taught and what constitutes “sentient.” Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is a broad hysteric here, and Jackman a simple burly menace, a military man used to strong-arming wimpy engineers to get what he wants. And Copley? He’s just insipid as the voice of Chappie.
The most valuable player here has to be Blomkamp’s agent, who got him assigned to the next Alien movie before this abomination (co-written with his wife) got out and suggested that he’s run out of ideas on just his third outing as director. That’s thinking about the future.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley.
Director: Neill Blomkamp.
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell.
A Sony Pictures release. Running time: 120 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, brief nudity. Playing at area theaters.