Chappie

Director: Neill Blomkamp (2015)

This socially aware sci-fi flick about a rogue robot suffers clunky construction, short-circuiting serious ideas with silliness.

A muddled exploration of what it means to be human, it lacks soul. Chappie the robot is annoying while human characters are unlikeable and thinly written.

It’s also determinedly derivative, poorly plotted, unintentionally funny and ends unconvincingly.

However there’s some great design, good action and an entertaining bad guy.

The crisp light of South Africa allows for fresh cinematography by Trent Opaloch and it’s edited with haste to keep the pace upbeat.

In his previous films District 9 and Elysium, director Blomkamp tackled racism and inequality. Here it’s the criminalisation of children, with echoes of Pinocchio and Oliver Twist.

In the near future, crime in Johannesburg has fallen dramatically due to the successful deployment of Scouts; heavily armed android police officers.

They’re designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who works at the Tetravaal corporation.

Rival designer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) believes his beast of a machine – called the Moose – to be superior to the Scouts and is frustrated CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) won’t provide the development funds he needs.

The contrast between the two different designs is remarkably similar to the two robots in Paul Verhoeven’s far superior 1987 classic Robocop.

It’s great fun to have Jackman as a bullying bad guy and there’s a little hint of Blade Runner’s JF Sebastian in Patel’s lonely Deon who builds toy robots for company at home.

Weaver is powerless to deliver anything interesting. Her ability, charisma and sci-fi cultural capital from playing Ripley in the Alien franchise is squandered.

While on a drugs raid, robot officer 22 is damaged and ear-marked for scrap. His battery is irreparable and only has five days of power remaining.

Deon rescues the robot to test his unapproved artificial intelligence program.

Meanwhile tattooed criminals Ninja and Yolandi (real-life rap duo Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser) and their accomplice Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) are in a tight spot.

They have to pay gangland boss Hippo (Brandon Auret) 20 million Rand within seven days or face his violent wrath.

The’re so edgy they live in an abandoned warehouse decorated in day-glo graffiti and drape themselves in the Stars and Stripes.

Their plan is to force Deon to switch off the city’s police robots to facilitate their robbing an armoured bank truck.

When they discover 22 in Deon’s van, it’s decided he would add muscle to their scheme.

22 is reactivated with his newly programmed artificial consciousness and renamed Chappie – but he is naive and emotionally under-developed.

Sharlto Copley provides his voice and mannerisms through a motion capture performance.

Deon and Ninja are equally unsuitable father figures fighting for influence over their ‘child’. One teaches art and literature, the other swear-words and violence.

We pity Chappie as he’s exploited and abused – but he quickly becomes a petulant teen with an irritating gangster persona and styling.

Playing the gangsta attitude for laughs undermines the script’s earnest warning of learnt criminality.

There are heroic security failures, eruptions of comic-book violence and a mysteriously disappearing riot. A plastic chicken features frequently.

A jerry-built not custom made script fails to offer memorable scenes or dialogue. Except for the South African setting it’s all extraordinarily familiar and disappointingly tame.

★☆☆☆