Visuals Salvage Gorgeously Messy "Chappie"

Meet Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie,” a slice of leftover science fiction warmed in a hopelessly outdated conventional oven. One bite hot, gooey goodness, the next cold and undercooked, its take on robots and artificial intelligence is as standard-issue as its own force of look-alike robot cops. Much of it is badly written, clumsily performed, and prone to editing issues. Hardly an ideal representation of the genre.

What it is, though, is infectious. Blomkamp has corrected course from his dreary Matt Damon vehicle “Elysium,” recapturing the energy of his debut and breakout hit “District 9.” Where “Chappie” falters in storytelling, it makes up for in small moments that land their punches, led by some surprisingly iconic imagery and affectionate callbacks to sci-fi classics. “Robocop,” “Terminator,” “E.T.” and “Blade Runner” are all represented here, lovingly coated in a John Carpenter-esque score.

Unabashed cribbing? Sure, but it’s culled from the best of the best.

“Chappie” follows the story of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”), the young, idealistic inventor responsible for the aforementioned robotic police force. But with his creation appropriated by a ruthless boss (a bored-looking Sigourney Weaver) and drawing the ire of a competing weapons designer (a mulleted, uninterested Hugh Jackman), Deon turns his attention elsewhere – to a higher level of artificial intelligence.

He’s created a program that could allow for the world’s first truly sentient robot – a kinder, gentler automaton capable of emotion. Compassion. Empathy.

Blomkamp once again keeps things contained to his native South Africa, with Deon’s mechanized cops – known as “Scouts” – unwittingly terrorizing the people of Johannesburg. It’s not until one bot takes heavy damage and is destined for the scrap heap that Deon sees a chance to test his new program.

Some stunningly convoluted plotting sees Deon and his robot intercepted by real-life rave-rap group Die Antwoord, playing alternate versions of themselves. Bleach blonde pixie Yolandi and crew-cut would-be gangster Ninja become the robot’s de facto parents, dubbing him Chappie and introducing him to a life of crime. The rest of the film is a push-pull between Deon’s hymns of peace to his creation – Yolandi allows Deon visitation rights – and Ninja’s felonious money-making schemes.

Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) takes on motion capture duties here as the title character, lending a childlike innocence to the puppy-eared hunk of metal. It’s the film’s best performance but never fully-realized, as Blomkamp’s script pinballs between characters and subplots, all of which stupidly collide in an inexplicably fiery finale that turns out not to be the film’s finale at all.

“Chappie” is a work of big, bold strokes, many of which don’t pay off. But it’s hard to fault Blomkamp for so enthusiastically shooting from the hip. The idea of a trashy, avant-garde rap duo as alternatively sweet and devilish foster parents to a robot is ultimately the film’s fulcrum, and it’ll be a deal breaker for many viewers. But at its core, it’s a hilarious, adventurous idea that’s crazily intended to serve as the emotional heart of the film. And it almost works.

Blomkamp is nothing if not excited by what he’s doing here, like a child playing with action figures, all the while making unintelligible sound effects. It’s when he has the good sense to shut his characters up that “Chappie” levels up, giving us glimpses of the stunner it might have been. It all serves as monumental evidence that visionary directors aren’t necessarily visionary writers – or even competent ones.

But the movie is an enjoyable trip, a weird and wild grab bag fashioned by a young filmmaker given carte blanche long before he’s earned it. “District 9” was nice, but hardly worthy of the creative blank check Blomkamp’s been given. Yet, it’s strangely satisfying to see an unquestionably talented filmmaker run wild on screen, as muddled as his recent work has been.

In the end, “Chappie” is a gorgeous mess, one that just might be postmarked for appreciation years or decades down the line.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 6, 2015
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriter: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Starring: Dev Patel, Yolandi Visser, Ninja, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley