It was the best film of 2009, a sci-fi romp that came with both braun and brains - and kick-started the career of South African director Neill Blomkamp in pulsating fashion.

District 9 was an incredibly impressive launch pad. But that was then, and Blomkamp's new film, Chappie, comes after his 2013 misfire Elysium - a big budget, high concept mess which he's since admitted he mucked up.

Chappie, his third sci-fi feature that again utilises the slum-filled suburbs of Johannesburg for a high-tech adventure into robotics-gone-wrong, doesn't make up for Elysium. In fact, it makes things worse.

Like Elysium, Chappie's programming is flimsy. Much of this we've seen before in better films, like the original Robocop, Steven Speilberg's A.I., '80s kids flick Short Circuit, and the cartoon caper Wall-E. It even ends with an eye-watering robotic shoot out that would make Transformers director Michael Bay proud.

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Chappie references all of those films, but adds virtually nothing to them. Its threadbare plot can be easily described in one sentence: robotic police force goes haywire but a decrepit droid with an AI prototype chip could be the key to solving the problem.

That chip is the saving grace of both Chappie, the robot, and Chappie, the film. Starting life like a baby, the personality of the impressive droid - designed by Weta Workshop and brought to life by Chappie's animators and the voice work of Sharlto Copley - grows into a scene-stealing stunner.

Originally seen in Blomkamp's 2004 internet short Tetra Vaal, the Chappie on display here is a living, breathing triumph - a startlingly impressive feat considering his emotions are conveyed through a face covered by a visor.

It's just a shame that everything else around him feels like its been tacked on. Like the cartoonish acting skills of South African hip-hop duo Die Antwoord, whose members Ninja and Yolandi play at being gangsters like they're in one of their crazed music videos.

Or Hugh Jackman, who can't seem to work out if he's in a sci-fi comedy, an HBO drama, or the new Jurassic Park film. Armed with a terrible mullet and tan safari shorts, Jackman tries to have it both ways, playing jilted military vet Vincent Moore with all the conviction of a drunk Steve Irwin.

Chappie also comes with plenty of plot holes - especially when it comes to the antics of Dev Patel, who excels as nerdy office geek Deon Wilson but does inexplicable things along the way. After being kidnapped by gangsters who then steal your AI droid and train him up for carjackings, wouldn't you tell the police? Or at least mention it to your boss? Or attempt to steal him back?

If it was meant to be a comedy, then Chappie does have some laughs - mostly seeing this beatiful bot's personality take shape. And if it was meant to be an action film, it comes with a climactic set piece that impresses thanks to Jackman's boss bot 'The Moose' finally being let loose.

It's an overblown but technically impressive ending that nails home Chappie's problem: the hardware is solid - it's the software that's mostly at fault.

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Chappie
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Yolandi Visser, Ninja
Rating: R13

- nzherald.co.nz