There’s a portion of “Short Circuit 2″ that my brother and I used to quote with glee, much to the horror of my mother. Despite the film being a harmless, PG-rated sequel about the further adventures of bug-eyed, cutie-pie robot “Johnny Five,” it contains what is, for a children’s film, a questionable subplot. While Johnny Five is on the loose in the big city, searching for “more input,” he comes across a Latino gang. Rather than tear him to pieces, the gang indoctrinates Johnny Five, who quickly learns their slogan. It goes like this: “Los Locos kick your ass, Los Locos kick your face, Los Locos kick your balls into out-er spaaaace!” This charming retort, the result of an 80’s era screenwriter with a gift for stereotypes and playground-level vulgarity, was among the many unofficial mantras of my childhood. Now, it seems writer/director Neill Blomkamp has made a feature-length extension of this scene.
Blomkamp’s “Chappie” is an admirably eccentric but wobbly melding of “RoboCop” and “The Elephant Man.” Taking place in the too-near future (by next year, South Africa will have an army of robo-law enforcers and everyone will have bad haircuts. Whatever you say, Mr. Blomkamp), Dev Patel stars as a scientist who creates a program that enables robots with consciousness. He steals a used police robot, inserts his program and suddenly, a soulless android has the mannerisms and language of a small child. For reasons that are overly complicated, the robot, named “Chappie,” is raised by a quartet of street thugs, who teach it how to behave like them. Here’s where the “Short Circuit 2″ comparison comes in. What was treated as a throwaway joke in that movie is the philosophical drive of this film. The point Blomkamp has to make is simple but timely: society will always prey on those that are different and innocent. The image of the “alive” robot getting in with the wrong crowd, learning profanity, values and violent techniques from a gang, who give him “bling” and a spray paint tag, is both valid social commentary and completely silly.
I enjoy how the science fiction genre constantly returns to the question of whether a robot could reciprocate the feelings we have for it. Yet, near the film’s end, when the robot fully adapts “gangsta” posturing and is both child-like and a clueless patsy, I found “Chappie,” the movie and the robot, impossible to like. The characters are all unappealing and one-note, lacking any rooting interest. Patel is a likable but inexperienced young actor who is visibly trying too hard. Playing the villain of the piece, Hugh Jackman attempts to add dimension to his character but can’t, while Sigourney Weaver has little more than a cameo appearance. The pace is so rushed, it seems that character and key exposition scenes have been eliminated. The two-hour running time passes briskly, which is a problem. “Chappie” too tightly edited, with the end result feeling like a highlight reel and not a fully developed story.
Sharlto Copely’s vocal and physical embodiment of the title character (through motion capture effects that transform him into a seamless CGI character) is impressive, especially during the promising introductory scenes. The key with these types of characters is in the eyes: Chappie’s peepers are expressive and the character is, at first, endearingly sweet. By the end, after a big shootout with a bigger robot (not unlike Ed-209 of “RoboCop”), I was ready for someone to recycle Chappie into an ash tray.
Blomkamp’s “District 9″ firmly deserves its instant classic status, while his follow-ups, “Elysium” and this movie (which all seem to take place in the same world) are well-intentioned, provocative by design and fatally flawed misfires. “Blade Runner” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” did all of this before and took its ideas and troubling questions about robots who can “feel” much further. Blomkamp is unquestionably talented and, hopefully, will move past this set-back.