“Hi-Tek, drop that four to the floor.
I get real paid, what you think I do this for?
My bodyguard helps me get to the bar.
Neill Blomkamp’s makin’ me a movie star.”
– Baby’s On Fire, Die Antwoord
I’ve tried to stay away from the specifics of the criticism directed at Chappie, but I can tell even by the headlines that the film’s use of South African “Zef” duo Die Antwoord is a fairly large hurdle for most of the critic community. The film is a celebration of their whole aesthetic and sound. Shit, it’s practically a Die Antwoord commercial. When they’re on screen, hardly a moment goes by where their music isn’t thumping from some nearby stereo. Ninja and Yo-Landi are extreme characters with extreme haircuts, extreme costumes, extreme mannerisms, and a willfully repulsive image. The entire movie is festooned with their garish style, and it seems like most critics find that so grating that it ruins the movie for them. And I can’t say I blame them, really. Die Antwoord isn’t for most people. I wouldn’t even consider myself a fan per se, but I’ve seen a few of their bizarre music videos and I enjoy a few of their songs. This might explain why Chappie worked a bit better for me than many critics. If you can get past the fact that it’s practically ‘Die Antwoord: The Motion Picture’, you may find more things to like about Neill Blomkamp’s worst received film yet. That still doesn’t save Chappie from being broad, unfunny, thinly conceived, and full of dunderheaded ideas.
It all starts off on the wrong foot, with Blomkamp falling back on old tricks — faux-news and faux-doc footage to quickly rattle off exposition. We quickly learn that Johannesburg robotics firm Tetravaal (a nod to Tetra Vaal, the short film that inspired all this) provides the Johannesburg Police with “Scouts”: gun-wielding robots powered by a complex law enforcement program. In one of the film’s flat-out stupidest moments, Anderson Cooper publicly reveals Tetravaal’s secret to reprogramming a Scout on broadcast television. Yeah, that’s the kind of movie this is. Things improve a bit during a legitimately exciting shootout scene, and shortly thereafter we meet Tetravaal engineer Deon (Dev Patel). Deon spends his nights at home, chugging Red Bull and programming a perfect artificial intelligence. When his computer tells him his A.I. is 100% error free (huh?), Deon exploits the bafflingly lax security at Tetravaal to steal a Scout that’s been scheduled for decommission. Deon’s path then crosses with the world’s most recognizable criminals: Ninja and Yo-Landi, who want the Scout to assist them with the “one last job” so many criminals seem to need in movies. Deon is forced at gunpoint to load his new A.I. into the Scout, and Chappie is born.
Meanwhile, Deon’s rival co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman) suspects what Deon is up to, and uses his suspicions as leverage to promote his man-operated military droid (the one that looks kinda like ED-209). As the film’s real main baddie, Vincent is just as silly and broad as Ninja and Yo-Landi. He talks to himself like only a movie villain would, and spouts lots of kooky Australianisms. Despite being Australian, he’s essentially a caricature of American right wing nationalism. He’s unstable, short tempered and relentlessly pro-military. He openly carries his Glock on his hip, even in the office. He wears a gold crucifix and offers to take Deon to church after slamming Deon’s head on a desk in the middle of their crowded office and quietly threatening to blow his brains out (though no one takes notice). Now that I think of it, both Deon and Vincent’s jobs at Tetravaal are incredibly vague. Sure, they’re engineers, but they seem to be able to come and go as they please, because the film isn’t at all concerned with how Tetravaal functions as a company. As with many things in movies, it’s just a surface understanding of what “work” really is. And though nobody really wants to get caught up in how an engineer like can do things like steal vital company equipment whenever he wants, leave work for hours at a time without apparent consequence, or just waltz into a restricted room and grab a bunch of guns and grenades (at a robot factory, no less), these things nevertheless make the world of Chappie feel unusually tenuous.
But there’s something about this sort of breezyness and desire not to get mired in minutiae that works in Chappie’s favor. Not once does the film stop to ask if Chappie is actually sentient. He just is, and the characters all know it. The film’s not asking deep questions about consiciousness, machine sentience, or free will. We’ve heard it all before in better films, so I can safely say that Chappie avoids the pothole of ponderousness. As a result, the film allows itself to have a bit of fun. I’m not sure if the film is even aware of it, but it’s light fare. It’s better than Elysium in that respect. Its metaphors are just as easy to parse, but they’re not nearly as self-serious as what we saw in Blomkamp’s previous film. Anyone can see that the Scouts are a commentary on today’s tech: they’re always on, always trackable, able to be wiped from the cloud, and Chappie’s five-day battery isn’t replaceable (like an iPhone). That becomes a big problem for our protagonists as Chappie’s battery runs lower and lower.
For some unknown reason, they can’t just plug him somewhere to charge. We know that Chappie’s consciousness is digital and therefore transferrable, but the battery issue is one of the more important narrative conflicts and remains stubbornly, dumbly unresolved by the film’s end. Commenter Damar has pointed out my error: Chappie can’t be charged or have his battery replaced because the damage he sustains early in the film prevents it. Thanks, Damar!
Chappie is rife with shoddy world building and poor logic, and I could fill several reviews with the issues I have in that department, but I think praise should be given when it’s due. First of all, the VFX that bring Chappie to life are downright astounding. They’re some of the best full CG character animation I’ve seen in a LONG time. He’s beautifully animated, and small metal bars where his eyebrows and mouth would be make him surprisingly expressive. Sharlto Copley’s mo-cap performance is excellent, even when he’s imitating Ninja’s gangsta affectations a bit too well. Hans Zimmer’s score is also a lot of fun, making frequent sonic homage to 80s synth scores. It reminds me quite a bit of Power Glove’s music for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which is pretty great. The film is well shot, sequences are come together cohesively, and the color palette is refreshingly diverse compared to the oversaturated neons of most 80s homage films or the blue/orange magic hour of Michael Bay. I also like that Ninja and Yo-Landi aren’t played as a two-headed monster. While it’s hardly complex, their relationship still has tension and drama, and you can sense a history between them. Some may find their screen presence too irritating to notice that, but there’s something there. And that brings us back to the biggest pill to swallow: Die Antwoord’s style, presented here in its full glory. For many viewers, I think that means Chappie simply won’t compute.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars