Some wags have noticed that, in the run up to the release of his third feature, Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9, has been talking more about a proposed Alien sequel than the film he's supposedly promoting. Oh, I dearly hope he's signed all the relevant contracts in the presence of all the necessary witness. Chappie is not the sort of film that boosts careers. Chaotic, discordant, sentimental and downright ugly, the picture comes across like a work in progress that no sane viewer would wish any closer to completion. You have never seen so many talented people looking quite so uncomfortable.
Where to begin? Well, we may as well point out – though it's the least of the film's problems – that the opening act is virtually identical to that of Robocop. A sinister tech giant, after failing with a louder, less flexible robot policeman, has turned to a sleek human simulacrum. Dispatched in large numbers, the machines succeed in dramatically reducing crime, but complications are about to come in legions (and in no good order).
Deon (Dev Patel), a talented engineer, has been developing artificial intelligence systems in his living room. His cool, unyielding boss (Sigourney Weaver, obviously) refuses to let him experiment with any of the robots, so he takes one home with the intention of making himself a friend. Before that gets to happen, he and the mechanical man – later to be called Chappie – are kidnapped by hip hoodlums in the form of South-African pop rappers Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser). Elsewhere, a shouty subtitled man is angry about something and rival engineer Hugh Jackman fumes about his own cancelled project.
As well as Robocop, the trailer has directed expectations towards 1986 techno-comedy Short Circuit. The news is worse than we could have feared. More than anything else, Chappie (voiced horribly by Sharlto Copley) suggests a metal version of the ill-remembered Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace. It's not just the sickening cuteness. The character's eventual mutation into a grimly unamusing gangsta – though supposedly detoxified by having white folk as his mentors – drags up all those ancient worries concerning low-level racism.
Of course, you can get away with any amount of offensive material if the surrounding package is sufficiently glossy. What really takes one aback about Chappie is the sheer sloppiness on display. The digital photography looks as if it has been uploaded from a 2003 mid-market Nokia. The least said about Ninja and Yo-Landi – who dress pretty much as themselves and who carry their own first names – the quicker their performances can be dispatched to the same unmarked grave that contains the bones of Vanilla Ice's Cool as Ice. Hanz Zimmer's dire, unrelenting score overpowers much of the dialogue, but not enough to deny us a few moments of unintentional hilarity.
As Deon is being driven away from his mechanical friend, he leans out the window and shouts desperately: “Don’t let them compromise your creativity!” It’s a bit late for that, young man. Truly awful.