From the beginning, it is obvious that Chappie has District 9-level aspirations. However, poor writing and an overwhelming sense that we've seen this all before crushes those aspirations and leaves Chappie feeling like an empty vessel.
Dev Patel, who has done great work in films such as Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but isn't given a whole lot to do here, plays Deon Wilson. He's a robotics genius who's brought the city of Johannesburg the world's first autonomous police force, called Scouts. After spending a night drinking Red Bull and yelling at his discount WALL-E robot, Deon develops the code for artificial intelligence and steals the busted body of a broken Scout to test it out on. To nobody's surprise, the code works and Chappie becomes the world's first thinking, feeling robot. O brave new world!
Before Deon even gets started with Chappie, he's kidnapped by a band of thugs and seemingly has no option but to build Chappie for these unlikable losers who, for some reason, need a robot partner to help pull of some heist. The big problem here is, up to this point, we have not spent enough time with Deon to grow to like him and now Chappie is being raised by a group of unredeemable, gun-toting miscreants who do things like leave Chappie to be tortured by Scout-hating citizens of Johannesburg, shoot human policemen, and throw innocent people from their vehicles during an overstayed carjacking montage. As a result, Chappie grows to be a shallow jerk (that's putting it lightly), which leaves nobody for the audience to root for. Any sense of endearment that should exist watching Chappie learn his first words or paint his first picture is quickly overshadowed by how unpleasant he becomes.
Even the terrific supporting cast is underutilized here. The great Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore, a soldier turned engineer who despises and distrusts artificial intelligence. Jackman's ugly side shines in a few, brief moments, but sadly Jackman's talent is suffocated by an overall lax script that reduces him to mostly scowling angrily from the shadows as he eavesdrops on Chappie and Deon. Sigourney Weaver, who made her name in sci-fi, hams up a few lines as the president of the robotics company that both Vincent and Deon work for. Her character exists merely to give Vincent the go-ahead to utilize the Moose, Blomkamp's version of the ED-209, after everything goes "tits up." She is so trivial that you can hear the "cha-ching" as she's cashing in her paycheck.
Visually speaking, Chappie is ripe with spectacle, as we have come to expect from Blomkamp's work. The motion capture animation on the Chappie character is splendidly detailed and the minimalistic approach to smoothly blending practical and top notch special effects still makes for an aesthetically satisfying experience. Unfortunately, visuals can only carry a film so far on their own.
As for substance, Chappie is pretty soulless for a film about having a soul. Instead of fleshed out, meaningful characters, Neil Blomkamp's latest South African sci-fi flick is full of irritable idiots who seem to lack any sense of decency or depth. It's near impossible to root for or even care about anyone in this movie. At this point we can only hang tight, wait for Chappie to blow over, and hope that Blomkamp's Aliens sequel does not suffer the same disappointing fate.