In “Chappie,” a dystopian robot thriller from South African director Neill Blomkamp (“Elysium”), we’re introduced to an awkwardly stiff humanoid with something funny-looking sticking out of his head.
And that’s just Hugh Jackman, who, along with a ridiculous mullet, plays the movie’s wooden, one-dimensional villain. The real automaton hero — a rabbit-eared police droid that develops artificial intelligence and a streetwise swagger after being adopted by a gang of Johannesburg thugs — is Chappie (South African slang for “young man”). As voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, Chappie is far more human than even his human nemesis Vincent, a muscle-bound soldier-turned-robot-designer who stomps through every scene like one of his automated combat troops.
In the role of a man who will stop at nothing — including allowing the streets of Johannesburg to descend into chaos in order to create more demand for his product — Jackman is simply painful to watch.
But not as painful as it is to contemplate how naively the film treats the concept of artificial intelligence and robotics. Co-written by Blomkamp with his “District 9” writing partner Terri Tatchell, and set in 2016 — that’s right, one short year from now, in a world that’s gone straight to hell! — “Chappie” imagines a universe in which human consciousness is capable of being uploaded to a thumb drive, and where the Internet, that repository of everything from porn to the owner’s manual for the space shuttle — is all one needs to access the entirety of human knowledge. (Never mind that last month I couldn’t find a 1987 episode of “SNL” that I was looking for.)
“Chappie” is a ball of contradiction. It takes the concept of “Transcendence,” crosses it with the storyline of “RoboCop,” and then delivers it, seemingly, to the target demographic of “Short Circuit.” It is, in other words, simultaneously dumb, hyperviolent and cutesy.
Why, for instance, do Chappie’s “eyes” — represented by eight-bit black-and-white computer graphics that look like the screens of an old Motorola cellphone — narrow cartoonishly to slits when he gets “angry”? Why does he even have eyes, for that matter? Okay, okay, I get the anthropomorphizing. But a scene where Chappie, who is made out of bullet-resistent titanium, is shown getting some kind of tactile pleasure out of petting a dog is beyond illogical.
There’s more pleasure to be had from watching Chappie’s human caretakers, a couple of criminals called Yolandi and Ninja, who find Chappie and try to enlist him as a partner in crime. Played by non-actors Yolandi Visser and Ninja, a South African rap duo who perform as Die Antwoord (or The Answer), the antiheroic characters are the best thing about the movie, despite being largely unsympathetic (i.e.,they’re murderous thugs). They exude a raw appeal that, if not quite charm, is nonetheless highly watchable.
As Deon, the software engineer who wrote the computer code for Chappie, Dev Patel is adequate, if under-used. When he’s wounded by one of Vincent’s walking death machines — a remotely-operated war drone called the Moose — the scene fails to elicit the pathos it might otherwise warrant, simply because Patel is such a cipher. As for Sigourney Weaver, who plays Vincent and Deon’s boss, she turns in a performance that’s almost as heavy-handed as Jackman’s.
Visually, “Chappie” has the cool and expensive look of a video game. It’s adrenaline-stimulating eye candy. Despite Blomkamp’s efforts to make some kind of commentary about the human soul, which the auteur bolsters with his trademark social consciousness — a tone of preachiness that, after three films, has worn out its welcome — the movie exhibits precious little humanity.
Like Chappie, the movie seems human, but has a cold metal heart.
(124 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, obscenity, drug content and brief nudity.