Yo-Robot: Uneven "Chappie" only has parts of cool, thoughtful sci-fi

Chappie (2015)
120 min., rated R.

All two of South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi films, 2009's "District 9" and 2013's "Elysium," tend to encompass bigger ideas about apartheid, xenophobia, immigration, and man and machine. His third film, "Chappie," alludes to similar ideas, but none of them feel fully realized. It's "Short Circuit" meets "RoboCop," a reductive comparison that has already been made because it's so true, but how writer-director Blomkamp and wife/co-writer Terri Tachell mash up the spare parts is narratively jumbled and tonally schizophrenic. With the misguided choice to focus on the wrong characters, there's too much of an ugly streak here, despite a nasty, crowd-pleasing confrontation in the homestretch, and not enough fun or joy to not dismiss the film as an ambitious failure.

It's 2016 in crime-ridden Johannesburg and a robotic police force has just been implemented. At Tetravaal Robotics, well-meaning robot developer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has been working off-hours on artificial intelligence for an advanced machine that can think and feel. Unfortunately, weapons company CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) will not approve the trial on one of their robots, while engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) has lost funding for his own giant, human-controlled robot design called "Moose." Just as Deon steals a broken robot to test out his new A.I. project, he is kidnapped by a tattooed, punkish street gang, including Ninja and Yolandi (played by South African musical artists Die Antwoord), along with sidekick Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who need him to shut down all of the police robots in order to pull off a heist in seven days. Taking Deon to their concrete warehouse hideaway, they instead find "Chappie," who's practically a baby right out of the womb. Over a couple of days, lone gang female Yolandi becomes "Mommy," letting Chappie express himself through painting and teaching him words, and Ninja is "Daddy," who turns his robotic son into a killing machine with swagger. Meanwhile, Vincent is on to Deon's new creation.

Seemingly derivative in concept, "Chappie" (based on Neill Blomkamp's 2004 short film "Tetra Vaal") is best when blending the weird and unexpected into its execution, but even a little of those elements go a long, long way. Meet Die Antwoord. Blomkamp seems to want to introduce the funky, edgy South African rap-rave musical group (made up of Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser) to the rest of the world, and their inclusion is bound to be divisive and nearly sink the entire film. Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser are not trained actors and it shows in the colorful, annoying characters they have to play here (which might not say anything positive that they're both essentially playing themselves and wearing their own merchandise). Ninja is particularly unpleasant and obnoxious, a dangerous ghetto stereotype like a refugee from a Harmony Korine movie, while the baby-talking Yolandi manages her maternal scenes okay. Simultaneously, we spend too much quality time with these strange caricatures, but we never get the chance to warm up to them as the sympathetic protagonists they're intended to be. With that said, perhaps Blomkamp should have made a documentary about this fascinatingly unique duo instead. Hans Zimmer's nifty techno score meshes with the musical soundings of Die Antwoord, too, but hearing their music is restrained by comparison.

Seamlessly integrated into the action with a motion-capture performance by Sharlto Copley, sentient robot Chappie should be the heart and soul of the film. On occasion, there are a few sweet moments between Chappie and the grounded, appealing Dev Patel as Deon, and a moment where Ninja drops Chappie off at a camp of cruel gangster teens who proceed to throw rocks at him and set him on fire is palpably heartbreaking. On the antagonistic side, Hugh Jackman, who might be the hunkiest actor to pull of a mullet and short khaki shorts, revels in the chance to play a one-note, over-the-top bad guy. However, with little thanks to the script, his Vincent is so frustratingly broad and undefined as a characterhe's a former soldier who hits the gym, goes to church, and somehow gets away with assaulting Deon with a gun in his work cubicle. Sigourney Weaver is far less prominent and given very thin character business as the robot company boss, to the point that she becomes an afterthought. After a big, violent skirmish in the office between Vincent and Chappie, she is even laughably directed to run out of the office but only before grabbing her purse and coat. 

There is a cool, thoughtful, entertaining movie in "Chappie" somewhere. To examine what it means to be human with the concept of nature vs. nurture, Chappie is caught between different parenting styles. Deon, the robot's maker, treats him like the child he is, hoping he will learn compassion and bringing him children's book "The Black Sheep," which Yolandi later reads to Chappie in bed. Ninja and Amerika teach him to be a profane, heat-packing gangsta. At one point, they tell Chappie to get back their stolen car, which turns into a bling-wearing Chappie throwing innocent rich people out of their cars, yelling, "You steal car from Daddy?!" Ninja also lies to Chappie, telling him that throwing knife darts at the human police will just put them to sleep. Beyond that and the little graffitied details within Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika's junk-laden hideaway, the script falls into simple logic miscues involving the factory's high-tech security and silly character decisions. While there are certainly things to admire, one ultimately forgets the merits when it's hard to talk about "Chappie" without discussing Die Antwoord. So much of the film is predicated on one's patience for their off-putting personas, and because of them, there is no emotional connection or weight that the attempt at poignancy feels completely unearned. Unfortunately, "Chappie" has only flashes of good ideas, but the story, characters, and tone force the whole enterprise to malfunction.