Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Science Fiction game changer, “District 9”, which many could say (minus maybe Duncan Jones’ “Moon, also released that same year), is one of, if not the best Science Fiction films of the past decade. It carved out a new niche in Science Fiction infusing faux-documentary elements, guerilla filmmaking, and a visceral-like quality usually only found in War films. It also contained many allegorical themes, mainly using his story of alien life forms who land on earth only to be ousted and pushed into “ghettos”, clearly Blomkamp’s take on the rising number of illegal immigrants and how they are treated once they enter into this country. Blomkamp’s follow-up, 2013’s “Elysium”, once again saw Blomkamp digging into more allegorical themes in a movie about classicism and two planets that separate the rich from the poor. “Elysium”, at least in my opinion (and most likely the opinion of everyone else) wasn’t half the film “District 9” was. But that would have been a tough feat to pull off. Considering how influential the former film was. As for his more recent film, what first piqued my interest about it a long long time ago was that film news websites were saying things like “Neill Blomkamp teams up with rap/rave group Die Antwoord on his newest film”. I immediately took notice as many people who know me know how much of a Die Antwoord fan I really am. And it seemed to make sense that the most unique voice coming out of Africa in film would team up with the most popular musical group from the same country (that and both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have expressed their deep love and admiration for one another to the press). It was only befitting that the two would team up for a film. What also drew me to this particular project, despite its less than favorable reviews, was not only the casting of Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er), but Hugh Jackman (who I have a newfound respect for because of 2013’s “Prisoners”), the legendary Sigourney Weaver (any Science Fiction director’s dream to have cast in their film), Dave Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), and finally third-time collaborator Sharlto Copley (playing the voice of the robot of the titular character. Even in spite of it not getting such great reviews, given the film’s pedigree it was almost a given that I would see it while it was still in theaters.
The film first introduced us, as did “District 9” did, to a decaying, crime ridden Johannesburg, South Africa. And through a series of interviews with Ph.D types, discusses the city’s elite police force, robots which are manufactured by a company called Tetravaal. The company is the leading distributor of the droids. Within the company there are two developers, Deon (played by Dev Patel) whose sight is set on making a more human-like robot. One that can think and feel emotions on the same level that humans do. The company’s other developer, Vincent (played by Hugh Jackman) has developed his own machine called MOOSE, which can be remote-controlled and handled solely by the company employee’s themselves, which puts the two in competition. Both developers are assets to the company, but are given very little help financially in getting their prospective projects off the ground by the head of the company, Michelle (played by every Science Fiction director’s dream of having her star in their film – Sigourney Weaver). A shift in plot brings us to a visceral car chase scene after a drug deal whose occupants include both Yolandi Vi$$ser and Ninja from Die Antwoord, playing fictionalized versions of themselves (or are they?). Ninja is threatened and told by the city drug lord, “Hippo”, that he needs to pay back $20 million dollars lost in the deal or else they will both be killed. Desperate and not knowing what to do, Ninja and Yolandi come up with a plan to kidnap Deon so that he will help them manufacture a killer robot to help them pull of a heist so they can pay back the money the $20 million they owe. It’s at about this same time that Deon finally figures out the right formula to create his project of making a robot that closely resembles a human. While in transit of taking hardwired parts to make said robot, he is kidnapped by Yolandi and Ninja and taken to a remote, abandoned factory in which he is forced at gun point to create this human-like robot by the two gangsters (or shall I say “ganstas”), and completes putting together a robot that can mimic humans of whom they name “Chappie”. After doing so, Deon isn’t needed anymore, so Chappie becomes Ninja’s and Yolandi’s project in teaching and training him to become the first robot “gansta”. So that they can use his bulletproof armor and apathetic conscience to pull of the heist that will allow them to pay the money back.
Does the premise of creating the world’s first A.I. gangster sound silly? It sure does. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun if you don’t take the movie too seriously (which I think is what turned off many critics about it). This is essentially Die Antwoord’s film. Both Yolandi and Ninja get the film’s most screen time, and for a musical duo of non-actors (except for their starring role they did a few years back in a short filmed by Harmony Korine) their characters are mostly drawn out well and come across as believable. Both artists/actors essentially play themselves, and Blomkamp seems to have clearly been inspired by the group’s aesthetic. As everything from the set design, music, graffiti, costume, and film’s music seems lifted from what I call the Die Antwoord aesthetic (otherwise known as “Zef” culture which broken down into laments terms is the band’s own “gangsta” lifestyle). The two of them essentially teach and educate Chappie on said lifestyle, which is in conflict to his creator Deon’s, who wishes for a more law-abiding and morally conscious Chappie. It’s within these so-called “training” scenes in turning Chappie “gangsta” that the film produces its most laughs, poking fun of itself and never seeming to take things too seriously (much like the band members themselves). Yolandi takes on the role of “Mummy” to the robot and Ninja taking on the role of “Dada”. Ninja being the one most responsible for turning Chappie into a gangster robot (imagine a robot version of James Franco’s “Alien” from Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”). It’s from here that the plot grows increasingly more and more preposterous, as Chappie is conflicted by both the “gansta” lifestyle of his kidnappers and the more morally conscious embodiment of his programmer Deon, who desperately tries to get him back.
I had a lot of fun with this film, even though as hinted at I’m partially bias being in that I’m a fan of Die Antwoord, whose performances in the film are borderline if not full on self-parody, which I found amusing and interesting to watch when put into the context of the film. It also has a great electronic throbbing score by the legendary Hans Zimmer (whose work up to this point in film composing has always been more orchestral). The concept of the film itself is strong enough even if the plot is jarring and the execution seems funny and pointless.
This wound up being a film that I was much more entertained by than I was in its ability (or lack thereof) to be believable or to be taken too seriously. As you have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to enjoy it. As I was able to going into it which ultimately wound up being the case here. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone, except for die-hard fans of the genre and even more so, fans of Die Antwoord. But for those looking to kick back with something that doesn’t require much thought on behalf of the viewer other than to be somewhat of a standard slice of contemporary Science Fiction, I can assure you there are a lot worse ways that you can spend your time outside of watching this film. However, that being said, let’s just hope that Blomkamp takes his next project, the “Alien” reboot, a bit more seriously as he’s going to have quite a bit of fine tuning to do.