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'Chappie' fails to make you care

Chappie; 114 min; Rated R

Let’s assume that a film such as “Chappie” will have a very narrow fan base. But let’s also assume that there are moviegoers who are attracted to the idea (if not this specific movie) that explores the intersection of man and machines.

The holy grail of these often dystopian, sci-fi stories is artificial intelligence (A.I.), meaning a robot that’s created not only to compute, but is self-conscious to include judgment and creative thought. Filmmakers such as Ridley Scott, in the iconic “Blade Runner,”explored the creation of androids, called Replicants, that were so real as to be all but indistinguishable from their creators. It posed an interesting problem for humans and replicants alike.

Of course, robots in films can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”and not to forget Gort in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Recall as well the creepy, murderous Hal 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or the juggernaut of androids in “I, Robot.” And who can forget “Wall-E,” starring one sweet little bot. And there’s the familiar trope, the star voyage, that always has at least one replicant of sorts on board (“Alien” and “Prometheus”).

With regard to the film “Chappie”: Chappie is a bot (think Robocop), designed (absent A.I.) to backup and protect the Johannesburg Police Department. South Africa has descended into anarchy, and the police need all help possible. Hence a small army of droids has been created, one of which will soon be called Chappie (using motion-capture technology and played by Sharlto Copley).

How Chappie goes from a programed bot to a thinking entity begins with the work of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a geeky genius working for a weapons manufacturer. His dream is to create a chip that will transform an android into something far closer to a human.

Of course, the company he works for is not interested in bots that appreciate poetry — just gun-toting, programmable street cops that can take and return fire.

The film is decidedly illogical and at times seems a bit unhinged. For example, Chappie (before he’s Chappie) is kidnapped by three street thugs (who actually become sympathetic characters). Their plan is to use him for their next big heist. Devon wants to rescue him and install his secret A.I. chip. Which he does, in a way. Strangely, Chappie suffers from arrested development. He’s more a tween-teen gone rogue.

There is nothing about the film that is cool-original; rather, it’s chaotic with more detours than a construction site. Chappie, with his rabbit ears and vacuum cleaner face, is interesting, but also a tad boring, which begs the question whether androids make more of a connection with the audience if they resemble the audience (OK, Wall-E was perfect for kids) in looks and expressions and voice. Chappie is not even close. It’s hard to care about Chappie, and that weakness is deadly for a bot-centric film of this type.

Truth be told, writer/director Neil Blomkamp (“District 9” and “Elysian”) seems to be losing his mojo regarding coherency, though definitely not his obsession with merging man and machine. The best thing about “Chappie” as a story is the trailer.