"Chappie" is the third film by South African director Neill Blomkamp, and it finds the director of "District 9" and "Elysium" stuck in neutral.
Of course, that means it's a science-fiction movie with plenty of real-world atmosphere, a rather seamless blend of new technology and innovative ideas with a hardscrabble urban landscape.
There are worse modes of storytelling for one's fixation, and "Chappie" finds the director blending questions about the nature of the soul and the singularity with a Johannesburg gangster rap aesthetic.
Blomkamp's norm is such a departure from the usual safe and sedate nature of big genre movies that there's a lot to be said for just accepting it and living in it. There aren't many other filmmakers, for example, who would cast big names such as Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and Dev Patel and give the leading roles in a movie to Ninja and Yolandi Visser of the South African rap duo Die Antwoord.
The film follows Patel's Deon Wilson, the brains behind a fleet of police robots, as he perfects his ultimate creation: a fully formed consciousness that is uploaded into a robot stolen off the scrap heap. He's named Chappie (Sharlto Copley, utilizing a form of motion capture) by Visser's character Yolandi, one of three gangsters who for convoluted reasons hope to train him to help them pull off a heist.
The picture has a sly sense of humor and style to spare; the production design seamlessly integrates futuristic tropes with a sense of chaotic industrial decay. There's a strong sense of place throughout and a quick wit manifest in montage and crisp widescreen detail. We've just seen it all before.
The movie falls apart in its third act, an extended action sequence in which Jackman's villain behaves incomprehensibly, while the movie sheds its philosophical leanings for sheer plot-driven stupidity culminating in a key moment that the filmmaker perceives to be more emotional and significant than it is.