- - Thursday, March 5, 2015

When director Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” hit theaters in 2009, it was a minor revelation — a smart, violent, socially conscious yet hugely entertaining science fiction parable about outsiders in Johannesburg.

What stood out most about the movie, released at the end of the summer blockbuster season, was how original it was, with its distinctive urban-style international setting, its relatively inexpensive but convincing effects, and its use of science fiction tropes to take on present-day politics. It was the polar opposite of the forgettable, simplistic, overanimated sci-fi tentpoles that Hollywood churned out year after year.

In contrast, what stands out most about Mr. Blomkamp’s latest film, “Chappie,” is how familiar it all feels.

The story, about a police robot that gains consciousness and begins to learn like a child while being parented by a pair of criminals, is cobbled together out of spare parts left over from “Robocop,” “Short Circuit” and even “District 9.”

As in “Robocop,” the movie follows a private security corporation’s efforts to replace human policing with robot crime-stoppers. The third act of “Chappie” even features a giant tanklike mech that looks suspiciously like the militarized robot nemesis from the finale of “Robocop.”

Much like “Short Circuit,” the movie charts the moral development of a defense robot — the titular Chappie — that uniquely gains independent consciousness. The similarity is strong enough that I kept expecting Chappie to shout “Johnny Five alive!”

Just as in “District 9,” the movie is set in a quasi-bombed-out Johannesburg filled with heavily armed rival gangs. This time, though, the setting is less compelling. “District 9” makes the city feel scrappy and alive with danger and chaos, but “Chappie” makes it seem far less developed.

Mr. Blomkamp repeats his use of fake documentary clips to help ground the story but discards the device early on this time, as if he forgot about it partway through the editing process.

True, the special effects remain impressive, especially given the film’s modest budget, reportedly $50 million. (Most big special-effects movies cost at least twice as much.)

Mr. Blomkamp’s effects are notable for their spectacle and their tactile quality. They have a physical presence, a weighty heft and grubby texture that often seems missing in an era of slick computer-generated effects that dominate the screen. Still, the effects show us little we haven’t seen before.

The sense of “been there, done that” is not bad so much as it is disappointing. Mr. Blomkamp’s vision was startling when it first arrived, but he now seems to have settled into a well-worn groove, content to rehash and recycle ideas about outcasts and outsiders while punctuating them with gory sci-fi shootouts.

The movie’s best moments come near the end, after all the explosions stop, when the story shifts focus away from social oppression and toward the nature of consciousness itself.

The film builds toward the sort of heady conclusion more typically found in science fiction short stories than in mainstream action movies. The finale could have been better developed earlier in the film. Indeed, the film’s resolution feels like the starting point for a better movie than the one that preceded it.

Nevertheless, the movie’s clever finish is a good sign for a once-promising filmmaker who now seems stuck in a rut. It suggests that Mr. Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell, may still have a few truly interesting ideas left.

TITLE: “Chappie”

CREDITS: Directed by Neill Blomkamp; screenplay by Mr. Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

RATING: R for language, violence

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

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