To its credit, Chappie very quickly announces itself - not just how bad it is going to be, but also the ways in which it is going to be bad. The beginning is some talking heads describing an artificial intelligence with hushed, earnest tones. Then the film cuts back to "18 months earlier". And 18 months earlier finds us in the middle of a montage of news programs - Anderson Cooper, why do you gotta be such a fucking whore, anyway? - that covers a span of at least several months, maybe a year or two, as South Africa replaces its human police force with autonomous humanoid police robots manufactured by the Johannesburg-based weapons contractor Tetravaal. And, I mean, you can't do that. You can't "18 months earlier" us into a montage. What was 18 months earlier? The beginning of the montage? The end? The night of the Cooper broadcast?

And in this single ass-brained cut, we get all we're ever going to get from Chappie: which is that writer-director Neill Blomkamp (his co-writer being Terri Tatchell, who served the same role on District 9, the director's six-year-old debut feature, made when he was still promising) has so, so many ideas, and no idea whatsoever how to put them together. The current conventional wisdom around Blomkamp is that he's a great stylist who just doesn't have a good grasp on how to tell a story, but I frankly think that's much too generous. A great stylist wouldn't have perpetrated that opening.

He does, however, have a distinctly poor grasp on storytelling, that's definitely true. Chappie is an astonishing, overstuffed mess, with at least two wholly different plotlines for two completely different movies about a sentient robot mo-capped by Blomkamp's lucky charm Sharlto Copley, and voiced by him in an endlessly irritating breathy pidgin, which coalesce into the third act of yet another movie entirely. The ad campaign seemed badly confused as to whether Chappie was a jolly sci-fi adventure for families baldly copying Short Circuit, or a visceral satiric action movie knocking off RoboCop, and this proves to be a sign that the marketing department had closely watched the film before they started to cut trailers.

The plot, such as it is, finds Tetravaal golden boy Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the inventor of the computer program that makes the "scouts" (the name for the robot police) possible, angry that Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, demonstrating the platonic ideal of what "Sigourney Weaver idling in neutral" can look like) won't let him experiment with his newly perfected A.I. program. So one day, in full view of everybody, he steals a scout that's set to be scrapped, and for this he doesn't even get questioned by security for over 24 hours. The bad news is, before Deon can install his software, he's kidnapped by a gang of thieves, Yolandi Visser (Yolandi Visser) and Ninja (Ninja) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). Ninja wants to force Deon to deactivate the scouts; barring that, he wants this scrap scout as his own private thug. But when Deon turns on the robot that has not yet been named Chappie in accordance with Yolandi's flutey, elf-like slang, he picks up an accidental God complex, while Yolandi finds herself ecstatically playing mommy.

Meanwhile, in a subplot that keeps banging on the door, wanting to be let in the movie, Deon's in-office rival, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is trying to sabotage the highly successful scout program in order to force the Joburg PD to adopt his gigantic warfare-bot Moose, rather than try to maybe sell the machine to, like, the Americans, or China, or Israel. For reasons that beggar the understanding of mere mortals, the terribly gifted Jackman elects to play this computer programmer as a big game hunter.

For the third time running, Blomkamp has made a film that's saturated with Ideas about Political Situations; but in a reverse of the problem with his last picture, Elysium, the issue here is not one of too much satiric subtext getting blasted in the audience's face like a fire house, it's satire that doesn't seem to remain consistent for more than the length of a single scene. The tone is all over the place, character's aren't stable - Ninja goes from being an outright villain to an outright hero without a scene explaining why - the logic behind story developments is so inscrutable (particularly the deeper into its techno-wizard enthusiasm about uploading human consciousness the film gets), that it can't even function as a clear, steady narrative, let alone draw a message up through that narrative.

The most embelematic single element of the film that I can think of is this: within Chappie, a pair of novelty rappers (Ninja and Yolandi are the members of Die Antwoord in their other career) are playing variants of their stage personae while wearing clothes advertising themselves, without the film seeing fit to put even a ghost of meta-narrative spin on this fact. That total failure of premeditation or even basic coherence is found in every nook and cranny of Chappie: its relentless inability to follow-through on any of its many storylines, its indifferent character continuity. The only time the film really clicks is in the handful of moments that it fully commits to be an action film, where Blomkamp and editors Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt get to indulge in some clever cross-cutting, particularly in one of the film's three climaxes, where offscreen space is used in some particularly exciting ways to intensify the scope of the fighting. And the design is generally solid; there aren't too many locations, but Die Antwoord's lair, at least, is a fairly remarkable space, with graffiti that looks like childish scrawling adding a sweetness that ends up feeling menacing the more violence we see take place their, and the more deranged that Ninja's acting goes.

But little bits and pieces of pleasure are nothing compared to how bafflingly mis-conceived the whole fabric is. Bloated with ideas that aren't developed in any meaningful way, and tied inexplicably to its immensely grating title character, Chappie is a thoroughly draining, joyless experience; it's the kind of free-for-all disaster when a lot of talent meets a void of discipline and a complete lack of hard choice-making.