The South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp gave Hollywood a jolt of creative electricity with his 2009 debut, "District 9," an inventive and wickedly funny parable about space-alien apartheid on planet Earth. His disappointing follow-up, "Elysium," tackled two not-so-sexy issues -- immigration and health-care reform -- with such simplistic thinking and contrived storytelling that it seemed to come from a different director. Blomkamp's fans surely hoped that his latest, "Chappie," about a sentient robot forced to fight for his life, would be a return to form.
But Blomkamp's form is beginning to look a little poor. "Chappie" is a loud, chaotic sci-fi flick that never rises above the cliches of its genre. Whatever interesting ideas it has -- perhaps something about consciousness and human nature -- are lost in Blomkamp's wildly disorganized screenplay, written with his wife, Terri Tatchell. Their model here is clearly Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic, "RoboCop," but where that movie gave us bloody good fun, "Chappie" offers mostly mean-spirited violence and a generally dismal worldview.
There are built-in pleasures in the story of "Chappie," but Blomkamp consistently finds ways to keep them from us. Chappie, played via motion-capture by Sharlto Copley, is a damaged police robot salvaged by an engineer, Deon (Dev Patel), who successfully imbues him with artificial intelligence. There's no fun in watching Chappie grow and learn, however, because he's been captured by two abusive criminals (Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er, of the South African shock-rap band Die Antwoord), who mostly teach him violence and bad manners. When Chappie does finally fight back, it's not against them but, oddly enough, against a human-controlled robot called The Moose. Its operator is Deon's overly ambitious co-worker, Vincent (Hugh Jackman in a half-mullet). Sigourney Weaver appears in a blip of a role as their chilly boss, Michelle Bradley.
The movie's impoverished notions of technology -- the usual thumb-drives and downloads -- could be overlooked if we were given other things to think about. Chappie's transformation from sweet-natured child to enraged killing machine, however, is emotionally unsatisfying and, as a life-story of sorts, rather depressing. "Chappie" is a cold and creatively bankrupt film from a director who has yet to live up to his potential.