Director and writer Neill Blomkamp clearly is fascinated with where we are headed as technology moves us into an increasingly dangerous and uncertain future.
But unlike his previous, much-admired (including by me) “District 9” and his unfortunate “Elysium,” his latest outing with robotic creatures, “Chappie,” takes us in a different and frequently engaging direction.
Again using his Johannesburg, South Africa, hometown as his setting, Blomkamp has crafted a story set in the near future, where virtually all police duties are handled by robotic “scouts” — created by a mega-corporation who CEO (Sigourney Weaver) is assisted by two competing engineering whizs: the tough-as-nails Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) and the gentle and sensitive Deon Wilson (Dev Patel).
For Moore, robots are merely tools to be completely controlled by human beings. He has nothing but contempt for the concept of artificial intelligence — the idea that robots can be crafted to feel, think and have a conscience. Wilson, on the other hand, is intrigued by the concept of a world where robots can be created to be in sync with humans.
Not surprisingly, it’s Wilson who plays a key role in the creation of Chappie, the defective scout robot — slated for destruction — who is turned into the closest thing mankind has seen to mechanical alter ego.
While Blomkamp delves into concepts with merit, I only wish he had got to them a bit more quickly and with better pacing.
Jackman, sporting a ridiculous mullet haircut and featuring a rougher version of his own Australian accent (in South Africa?), is a tad too cartoonish as the villain in the piece. Weaver is kind of a one-note, greed-focused CEO, though Patel is convincing as the empathetic creator of Chappie.
One of my favorite parts of the film revolved around the criminal gang members Ninja, Yo-Landi and America, the first two played by members of the alternative South African rap group Die Antwoord with edgy, over-the-top intensity.
No music or rapping involved here, but boy do they give us some eye-grabbing performances. In particular, I was touched by Yo-Landi’s maternal bonding with Chappie, even as her male cohorts are completely focused on turning the rogue robot into a criminal ally to aid their vicious activities.
By the way, Blomkamp’s longtime muse Sharlto Copley — the actor featured in all his films — is terrific as the title character, not only providing the voice but actually acting in the film thanks to motion capture magic.
There are some wildly enjoyable action sequences, some feeling like those inside a video game. Yet in the end Blomkamp brings us back to a touching if a bit strange conclusion. This is a well-meaning film with a good idea that unfortunately stumbles on its way to its less-than-satisfying end.
Sony Pictures presents a film directed by Neill Blomkamp and written by Blomkamp and Simon Kinberg. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated R (for violence, language and brief nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.