Like his feature debut District 9, South African director Neill Blomkamp set his new science-fiction film Chappie in his hometown of Johannesburg. To American audiences, that lends the films an air of unfamiliarity. Some characters, such as the muscle-bound gangster Hippo (Brandon Auret), speak with such thick Afrikaans accents that they require subtitling. There are plenty of familiar aspects on the screen, such as brand names and Washington's portrait on the American dollar bill, which shows up on a memorable pair of shorts, but they are reshuffled and reused in unfamiliar ways. This is useful to Blomkamp's world-building, as he uses his documentary-style camera work to make the South African capital look like a Mad Max post-apocalyptic dystopia without much trouble. But it can also be problematic. Watching a Blomkamp film like Chappie must be what it's like to watch American movies translated into other languages, and one wonders what has been lost in translation.
In the film's not-so-far-off world of 2016, the Tetravaal Corporation, led by CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), has created a line of virtually indestructible humanoid robot policemen to help maintain order in lawless Johannesburg. The robots, known as scouts, have enough artificial intelligence to perform basic functions, but that's not enough for their lead designer Deon (Dev Patel), who spends his off hours trying to develop a truly sentient A.I. that can allow his creations to make real moral choices. Meanwhile, rival designer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) is pushing his project, the MOOSE, a walking tank remotely controlled by a human operator. When Deon has a breakthrough, he asks his boss for permission to test out his new A.I. on one of the scout robots. But when she says no, he steals the broken chassis of an unlucky robot that has taken an RPG to the chest, intending to use it as a testbed.
The strangest thing about Chappie is not the titular robot, which is a seamless collaboration between Blomkamp, who began his career as a 3D CGI animator, and District 9 star Sharlto Copley, who provides the voice and motion-capture performance. It's the supporting players Ninja and Yolandi of the South African rave-rap band Die Antwoord. Using their own names, they are essentially playing themselves — or at least, they're playing a version of their public image, which has made them international YouTube stars. Die Antwoord takes American hip-hop culture and reflects it back at us through a funhouse mirror. Their distinctive visual style is all over Chappie, from the neon-colored assault rifles to the strangely sinister beach wear Yolandi sports through most of the film. But here, like in their music videos, it's difficult to know exactly how seriously they take themselves. And that problem translates to the film as a whole.
Ninja and Yolandi are in hock to Hippo for 10 million Rands, and they kidnap Deon and his creation, hoping to find a way to thwart the police robots and rake in enough dough in a big heist to pay off their debts. So when Deon activates his robot, which Yolandi christens "Happy Chappie," the first people it meets are insane gangster rappers. Needless to say, Chappie gets some pretty weird ideas about life.
As in District 9 and Elysium, Blomkamp is playing with some heady concepts. When Robbie the Robot was introduced in 1956's Forbidden Planet, the concept of a walking, talking, reasoning humanoid robot seemed like something from the distant future; in 2015, it seems like something we'll be dealing with sooner rather than later. Like Spike Jones' Her, Blomkamp wonders about the ethics of creating artificial intelligence. When Chappie discovers his battery is running out, he asks Deon, "Why did you just make me so I could die?" — a question philosophers have been asking the heavens since the Book of Job.
Despite flashes of brilliance, Chappie's script often resembles a list of stuff that would be cool to see in a movie rather than an actual story. The obvious nods to Paul Veerhooven's Robocop, the go-to example of how to combine satire and action, only reinforce the sense that Chappie is an intriguing near miss.