dir: Neill Blomkamp
I mentioned in a recent review that, fortuitously or not, the week I saw this was a week in which a couple of other AI-related movies came out, and that this was a significantly different version from the other.
How different? Well, if you’re a fan of South African hip hop outfit Die Antwoord, (let’s face it, why would anyone be?), you can delight yourself by watching a flick where they mostly star mostly playing themselves using their stage names, and oh yeah there also happens to be a robot hanging around with them too.
The Johannesburg police have been replaced with robots, or at least supplemented with them. One of the engineers working on the goofy robots gets this idea that he wants to create a cop robot that has self-awareness. How does he achieve this? Um, somehow.
A defective robot is his guinea pig, into which he inserts a magical program that will, all other things being equal, let him appreciate art and maybe write poetry one day.
The defective robot itself has only a short time frame in which to experience all that life can provide. The creator, whom Chappie refers to as ‘Creator’, didn’t do this deliberately as a control or anything, or to be cruel. It’s just that, you know, like the benevolent and all powerful yet insecure deity of the Old Testament that ‘created’ us with a use-by date, it’s a feature, not a deliberate bug.
How else to have the drive to make the most of one’s life, eh? Chappie is like a child when he first becomes self-aware. He is like a large, blue, metallic child. If there’s one point that the film makes over and over again, it’s that a child will turn out how he she or it turns out both because of the parental figures in their lives, and in spite of them as well.
Well Yo-Landi and Ninja, I swear to gods those are their character names AND their actual performing names as well, couldn’t be any more indicative of the difference between nature and nurture, or, more accurately, gentle parenting versus it’s-a-cruel-world-so-toughen-the-fuck-up-princess styles. And yet both “parents” in this instance are violent crims, so, you know, the message can only go so far.
To complicate matters further, original creator Deon (Dev Patel) insists on his paternity test, and gets all involved in Chappie’s rearing. Sure, he has rights, but he has responsibilities as well.
Though not related by blood, there is the bitter sibling in the form of a mullet attached to Hugh Jackman. The mullet is jealous of Deon, because his project gets all the support. The mullet is jealous and hateful of Chappie because of… vaguely religious horror at the thought of someone creating ‘life’. The mullet schemes and plans…
Honestly, doesn’t all of this sound nuts? It’s even more nuts that this got made than I could ever describe. How you could centre a film around the goings on, or even just the existence of Ninja and Yo-Landi and their music is absolutely bloody staggering.
Ninja is, and I don’t want to sound racist in saying this about a white Afrikaaner rapper / performance artist / lunatic is basically a PSA (what Americans call a Public Service Announcement) against the usage of crystal meth. I can’t easily think of a more disagreeable performer / head / presence I’ve seen recently. I’m sure he’s perfect as an onstage loud yeller of things, but as an actor, jeez, he made the robot look good.
Lest I double down on potential racism with sexism as well, let’s not forget about Yo-Landi either. She’s terrible too, but less unconvincing than Ninja, and at least she’s not as irritating (I’m pretty sure Ninja yells almost every line of dialogue he has). She also, at least, is a bit quieter, especially when talking to Chappie.
She almost immediately bonds with the little tyke, and treats him (perhaps unbelievably) like he’s an actual child in a metallic body. She tells him she loves him, teaches him to read, and encourages him to call her Mummy.
Ninja, and his violent partner-in-crime Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) basically do the opposite of whatever the hell it is that Yo-Landi is doing. They intend to use Chappie to commit crimes, and clearly don’t give a damn about him whatsoever. There is great humour in this (especially in the carjacking scenes), and some pathos.
Why is there an American character in this flick called Amerika? Because of obviousness. Sometimes, perhaps the theory might go, if you make something completely horribly obvious, it goes back all the way around to being mysterious again. The guy is called Amerika because… you have to have an American in the flick or Americans will stay away in droves.
And why would you have all the Die Antwoord imagery and paraphernalia and references to all their albums and collaborations and such? Because maybe Americans can’t get enough references to South African rap collectives or zef culture?
What’s zef culture, I hear you not ask, because no-one cares and no-one should care. Zef culture is what, I think, Ninja and Yo-Landi try to embody; this artistic but consciously artificial merging of branding, logos, working class Dutch Afrikaans ‘bogan’ stuff, I dunno. It’s something. But whatever it is, it’s not really that interesting.
Really, despite all the bizarre window-dressing, the core story still comes down to Chappie and his road to selfhood, dealing with being a new being, being threatened by Hugh Jackman’s mullet, coming to terms with violence in a violent world.
Much has been made of the annoyingness of Chappie’s voice work (voiced and motion capture work by Sharlto Copley), but I didn’t find him that annoying. I saw in some early reviews; early, lazy, dismissive reviews that he was likened to a Jar Jar Binks level of annoyingness.
That’s bullshit to me. As a visual creation and a character I thought he was fine, and he’s nowhere near as annoying as Ninja, and there’s no CGI making him behave like that. They battle with making Chappie seem expressive or reactive, and they have very limited real estate to work with, but they do a good enough job.
Maybe Copley’s voice, which is quite often a high pitched whine that can probably start dogs off barking from kilometres away or cut through glass, is a bit of a turn off, but I didn’t mind it too much, and it made sense (sort of) for this character.
I felt the flick wrestled enough with the complexities of an AI wrestling with its own existence (albeit in fairly familiar ways that we’ve seen from Blade Runner onwards) to make it more than just a droning action flick. There are inexplicabilities galore, as there are in all of Blomkamp’s flicks: as in stuff that happens just because Blomkamp thinks it would be cool, which make no sense in the context of the story itself.
There’s also about three villains too many. There’s some big bad gangster guy who looks like he wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Game of Thrones, but I couldn’t really figure out either why he was there or what the hell he was saying. He’s meant to be the nastiest gangster in all of Johannesburg, but really, with so much else going on, did the flick really need him? He’s meant to be a thorn in the side of Ninja and Yo-Landi when he loudly and arbitrarily tells them near the beginning of the film that they owe him, I dunno, $40 million dollars or krugerrands or something.
So the three geniuses; Ninja, Amerika, Yo-Landi, supplemented with their mechanical child, intend to kill a bunch of cops and security guards in order to get all the money that the lunatic gangster wants. Wouldn’t it be simpler, since they all have guns, and they now have a compliant robot cop on their side, to take out the guy that looks like a cross between 90s Snoop Dogg and a dinosaur?
I mean, he has tattoos and a gold plated machine gun, but so does Ninja. You’ve got to dream big, kids, that’s the only way you’ll get to the top of the pile.
Towards the end the flick gets taken over by nonsensical technological solutions to what would have been intractable and poignant problems, with the intention of somehow wresting a happy ending out of what should have been tragedy, but it hardly matters by that stage. The only character I even vaguely cared about was Chappie, and it would be interesting (but very unlikely, given how poorly the flick was received) to see his further adventures in contemporary Johannesburg, righting wrongs, fighting for/against the legacy of apartheid etc etc.
It’s an interesting but insane and self-defeating take on the AI story, undercut by a ridiculous level of deference to a deranged band that hardly deserves the cross-promotional opportunities. It’s staggering that this ever got made and released, it really is.
6 times that South African accent is still an immediate shortcut for evil out of 10
“Yeah, you see... the outside, this... this is just temporary. When you die the soul inside goes to the next place. The thing inside... see, that's what mommy loves. Come. Mommy loves you.” – Seth Efriken hip hop metaphysics - Chappie