Chappie is a truly inexcusable movie, the kind that would be laughed out of most entry-level film classes. The fact that this script and this director and these plot elements can get $50 million budget and wide release is staggering.
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s third nearly identical effort returns viewers to Johannesburg. Crime-ridden as ever, the police force have turned to automatons with limited artificial intelligence, real rabbit-looking things, to keep the peace. Ninja and Yo-landi Visser of the rap band Die Antwoord (these people) find themselves $20 million in the hole to local gang boss Hippo (Brandon Auret), and, being incredibly stupid, decide their best option is to get the remote to one of these robots from their designer, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). They kidnap Wilson with a decommissioned police bot that he intended to try to run experimental full artificial intelligence software on. The rappers force him to activate the robot, creating Chappie (Sharlto Copley).
In a lot of ways, it’s more important to science fiction than any other genre to have a grounding in reality, and this movie has none in either the science or the fiction. Chappie’s life is necessarily brief — his chasis was decommissioned because the battery fused inside it, leaving him with five days of power and no way to recharge. His motivation is to get his consciousness into a new chasis, but Wilson, for some reason, says it can’t be done. Chappie searches for a way to convert his mind into a readable program while I and anyone else with a middle school understanding of computers scream at the screen, “It’s his hard drive! It’s in his fucking hard drive!”
Chappie will eventually find this conversion and use it to upload some of his human friends into robotic bodies, because making the soul of a human being interchangeable with software is somehow easier than switching out hardware.
The fiction half of the equation is also horrible. These characters don’t just not understand computers, they don’t understand how to dress themselves. Apparently, the entire concept behind Chappie was to shoot what would happen if Die Antwoord got to raise a robot child, and the duo had a lot of influence over the eyesore set and costume design and their dialogue, which approaches Tommy Wiseau levels of bad.
Let’s talk about these guys for a second. Die Antwoord is the poster group for a counterculture movement– see, you can’t even get through a basic description without hitting a bad oxymoron. There is no such thing as a counterculture movement. If it’s big enough to be a movement, it’s part of the culture, and even if it truly rejects that culture’s norms, it is still a function of and beholden to said culture. It’s like putting “anarchist” on your business card. It is a concept so pointless, so self-defeating that the only thing one can truly know about self-proclaimed members is that they either don’t realize their rebellion is commonplace and completely predictable or they think they can convince people that it’s not.
Die Antwoord is the poster group for a “counterculture movement” called Zef. In theory, it’s a mode of self-expression for lower-middle class white South Africans. In practice, it’s essentially South Africa’s version of white trash. Instead of honky-tonk music and Confederate flag bikinis, the South African aesthetic favors white hip hop and, going from Die Antwoord’s example at least, dressing like Charlize Theron’s retarded character from Arrested Development. Their characters, the music and set design are drenched in this aesthetic, which is a terrible idea for a movie that’s going to leave South Africa. The best-case scenario is viewers won’t understand the context. The more likely scenario is they’ll lose interest in trying to.
Ninja and Visser are supposedly playing themselves, or at least alternate versions of themselves where they’re actually gangsters and not just pretending to be. The whole rappers as hero gangsters thing stopped being cool when Biggie died, and the trope’s return is unwelcome here. Their characters are shitty, hollow impressions of how they think criminals are supposed to act, and the best way to enjoy the film is to fantasize about their gruesome deaths.
It’s safe now to say that Blomkamp is the Nickleback of ’10s cinema. He broke out with this distinctive visual style and setting with District 9 and has abjectly refused to move off that style or adapt it in any way. It feels like you’re still watching the exact same movie, and it’s not a movie worth watching again and again. District 9 was exciting because it seemed to betray a potential rising star director, but six years later, I don’t know if he’s left the set yet.
He was recently set to helm the next Alien reboot, meaning we will finally have the answer to the question of which is worse — and Alien where everything is sand-colored and, somehow, an Apartheid metaphor, or yet another treatment from Ridley “still haven’t topped Blade Runner” Scott.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I am still not interested in temporary solutions. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.