When Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” came out in 2009, it was instantly apparent it was a work of staggering originality. From its setting — Blomkamp’s hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa — to its insect-like aliens and its story of the aliens’ marginalization and oppression in a Soweto-like township/reservation (it was in fact shot in Soweto), “District 9” felt new and fresh and unlike any science fiction movie to come before it.
Though the budget was slender, Blomkamp’s direction was so assured and his creation of a future world so uniquely imagined, it was a shock to learn that “District 9” was his very first feature. Where, one wondered, did this guy come from?
With Blomkamp’s latest, “Chappie,” the question now is: Where has that guy gone to?
The setting is the same: Johannesburg. The core creative team is the same: Blomkamp and his co-screenwriter (and wife) Terri Tatchell. The time frame is approximately the same: the near future. And actor Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s longtime friend and “District 9” tar, is back in the title role — though transformed into a robot through the miracle of motion-capture technology.
But barely a trace remains of the originality that characterized that first picture.
What we have here, basically, is “RoboCop” redux.
Robot cops, teamed up with human officers, are the wave of the future of law enforcement. Chappie, badly blown up in a raid gone wrong, is reclaimed and reprogrammed by a genius-level cyber engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), whose specialty is artificial intelligence and whose goal is to make Chappie an independent thinking entity with humanlike emotions. This doesn’t sit well with rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, in a one-dimensional performance), who has designed a mechanical monstrosity named the Moose that looks remarkably like the clanking, clunky ED-209 droid from “RoboCop” and is human-controlled. Like Ronnie Cox’s character in the original 1987 “RoboCop,” Moore does everything in his malignant-minded power to sabotage Deon and his creation and promote the Moose.
The rampaging evildoers of the picture, covered with tats and sporting mondo bizarro hairstyles, look like “Mad Max” berserkers. The gimlet-eyed CEO who runs the corporation that makes both ‘bots is played by Sigourney Weaver in the terse style that she’s been perfecting since “Working Girl.”
And at the heart of the whole thing is Chappie, a childlike innocent reminiscent of the sweet-natured mechanical man Robin Williams played in 1999’s “Bicentennial Man.”
Chappie’s instruction in human behavior falls by default to a couple of gangsters played by South African rappers and first-time actors Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser. They kidnap Deon and Chappie, and then Ninja’s character schools him in the thug life, teaching him gangsta slang and draping him in bling. Yo-Landi’s maternal instincts are stirred by the childish ‘bot, and it isn’t long before she’s reading him bedtime stories and informing him of the nature of his soul. And every now and then, to liven things up, massive megaviolence (including terrifying Chappie torture) breaks out.
It’s tempting to think that Blomkamp has gone Hollywood with “Chappie,” and that may be so, but his second picture, 2013’s “Elysium,” was a Hollywood production and it was quite original in its own right.
This one just seems like a big, dumb blockbuster, indistinguishable from so many others that roll off the Hollywood assembly line. “Chappie,” sadly, is a giant step backward for this once-promising filmmaker.