A Robot with Feelings, a Film Without Much of Them

BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA

After only his first two movies, director Neill Blomkamp became a mixed bag for me. I was immersed in the gritty world of his 2009 debut feature, “District 9,” which was then followed up with 2013’s misfire, “Elysium,” a film that became weighed down with its social messages, as well as by Jodie Foster’s bizarre choice of an accent (of which I’m still confused as to how Blomkamp allowed her to keep that up during filming).

He now brings us his third science-fiction action adventure, “Chappie.” As with his last two films, he offers interesting ideas, but, just like with “Elysium,” presents them with a decreased effectiveness, another step down from his commendable first full-length film.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, Tetravaal is a weapons manufacturer whose latest success is the distribution of robotic police officers, which have proven helpful in reducing crime. Inventor Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is praised for his work on the success, while Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is envious that his own law-enforcement robot, MOOSE, has had its funding cut. Deon soon creates a prototype artificial intelligence that can feel emotions and plans to test it on a defunct robot officer (Sharlto Copley).

When Deon is kidnapped by a trio of gangsters (Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, and Jose Pablo Cantillo), they force him to program the robot to fight for them in order to help them steal money that they will use to pay back a local criminal for a job gone wrong.  Naming him “Chappie,” Deon and the three gangsters will soon experience the impact of this technological breakthrough, while Vincent will do what he can to bring it to a halt for his own gain.

The motion-capture performance by Sharlto Copley, who has collaborated with Blomkamp for all three of his films, is one of the only reasons to consider maybe watching this film. The work he does as the titular character calls to mind the brilliant combinations of motion capture and voice acting from Andy Serkis, and Copley wonderfully communicates the emotions that his character is experiencing. This is very evident in one scene where, as a method to help toughen him up, Jones and Cantillo’s characters drive Chappie to a rather empty section of Johannesburg and leave him there to fend for himself against a gang, and, despite being a robot, the pain he expresses is on a very human level.

Speaking of humans, the rest of the cast isn’t memorable at all, particularly Sigourney Weaver, who plays Tetravaal’s CEO, and Hugh Jackman, whose characters are both completely bereft of development. Seeing superbly capable actors reduced to roles that are well below their talent is one of the film’s biggest flaws. Jackman’s character, despite his threatening physique, comes off as a pathetic loser within the company, and Weaver’s role is just a depthless authority-figure role.

Although Dev Patel does an okay job with his character, he needs another movie that can allow him to show the dramatic talent he displayed six years ago in “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Then, there are South African rappers Watkin Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser thrown into this, casting choices I still don’t entirely understand. Sure, they have that urban aura about them, which is maybe why they were chosen to portray these gangster characters, but Blomkamp could have easily given these roles to actors who have experience in movies, rather than try to turn rappers into actors.

The screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, which is based on the former’s 2004 short film, “Tetra Vaal,” isn’t as thought-provoking as a film about artificial intelligence should be. The fault of this goes to under-developed human characters and an uninteresting plot. The only time I was somewhat invested in the story was in the last 10 minutes, but by then, it became too late for the movie to be saved.

Given how his second and third films declined in quality after the wonderful “District 9,” I’m even more worried about him handling the next “Alien” sequel. It’s probably too late to take the reins away from him now, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

At first, “Chappie” looked like it would be a worthwhile and emotional journey, but it just ends up running on a low battery.

Final grade: C-