Few directors have made such a triumphant cinematic debut as South African,Neill Blomkamp. His first feature District 9 was an assured production, a canny blend of science fiction and social commentary, that blasted his career into the stratosphere. His next offering, Elysium was rather less successful but nonetheless, very watchable, even when it suggested that a human being could undergo drastic bodily surgery without bothering to remove his T-shirt. Chappie, however, is a real dog’s dinner of a film. Not only is it incredibly derivative (it comes across as an unwieldy amalgam of Robocop and Short Circuit) it features clumsy scripting and some pretty terrible performances in key roles.

In a futuristic Johannesburg, everyday policing is carried out by ‘Scouts,’ humanoid robots, capable of making their own decisions. They are the brainchild of Deon (Dev Patel) a nerdy worker in a giant corporation who dreams of one day creating a true AI – a robot capable of independent thought and the appreciation of art and music. This idea is pooh poohed by Deon’s workmanlike boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver, with very little to do but sit behind a desk and look stern.) Deon’s success is also envied  by his macho associate, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who has his own law enforcement project waiting in the wings and doesn’t mind taking a few shortcuts. When Deon runs some unauthorised experiments on a damaged Scout, the result is Chappie, (voiced by Blomkamp regular, Sharlto Copley) but things become complicated when Deon and his creation are kidnapped by a couple of local hoodlums, Ninja and Yolandi, who want to use the robot for their own nefarious purposes. They set about teaching Chappie how to be bad…

As in his previous films, Blomkamp is great at achieving a credible look in his futuristic world and the motion capture work employed here is of the very highest quality, so it’s a shame that the same care and attention hasn’t been lavished upon a credible script. Events pile haphazardly one on top of the other, but seem to follow no discernible logic, while the aforementioned Ninja and Yolandi are portrayed by a couple of South African rappers (they haven’t even bothered to change their names) who between them display the acting skills of… well, a couple of South African rappers. Frankly, they stink up the screen, which drives a fatal nail through the heart of the film.

The word is out that Blomkamp’s next project will be part of the Alien franchise, but he’ll have to work very hard indeed to rise above the scrappy disappointment that is Chappie. What a shame.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney