Chappie is a hard movie to recommend, because I know a lot of people, possibly even a majority, will never be able to accept the idea that deliberate, gleeful goofiness and earnest philosophical questions can coexist, even harmonize, within an absurdist lark. They’ll just say it had an “uneven tone.” I’ll always secretly believe those folks are hopelessly squaresville melvin bait, but I understand it’s a natural limitation, like colorblindness or a club foot, and don’t necessarily hold it against them. Because for me, Chappie was just about the perfect mix of dumb, smart, sarcastic, wrong, ridiculous, absurd, and earnest, a movie about flying, rapping, robot ninja star explosion fights that’s also a semi-touching riff on the inherent unfairness of consciousness.
“Why did you build me just so I could die?” Chappie asks his maker, kicking you right in the gut while your sides are still sore from watching a spazzy robot in a gold “HUSTLER” necklace roam around town boosting cars for the previous 10 minutes. It raises profound, unanswerable questions and then, implausibly, answers them, with sarcasm-drenched eighties action scenes. It’s like a mega-budget take on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Lethal Weapon parodies. It combines brief moments of honest introspection with gleeful gore while retaining that child-like quality of a backyard wrestling video. Feels like it just gets me, you know?
There’s a distinct odor of “f*ck you” to this entire endeavor, which is off-putting to some, but positively intoxicating to f*ck you enthusiasts. “Dammit, Blomkamp! You have such an incredible knack for staging, can’t you just film a serious action scene for once!?”
“F*ck you, I’m going to film a weird rap guy teaching a robot to grab his balls!”
That’s right, Blomkamp has cast a colonial-descended, pro wrestling-style caricature of co-opted American street culture and filmed a scene where it teaches an African-made robot how to be a “gangster,” complete with sideways pistol. That’s so dense with irony and subtext you don’t know whether to cheer or cringe. Mostly you laugh, because look at it.
Casting Die Antwoord (a married Afrikaans rap duo) in Chappie is arguably the strangest decision Blomkamp makes, but also the most representative. Die Antwoord’s defining characteristic (at least for those of us not deeply immersed in the mythology) has always been that they constantly make you wonder if they’re a joke. A parody, or completely serious? And then at a certain point, it’s all so over-the-top ridiculous that you realize that you can interpret it either way and it’s equally compelling. Is this an idiot savant or just a hilarious idiot? In the end do I really care? Am I not entertained? Chappie has that same quality.
Die Antwoord’s presence certainly augments the hyperreality of the Chappie universe, but do they kill its believability? I’m not sure believability was ever the point. Watkin Tudor Jones’ facial expressions and line reads were surprisingly competent for a non-actor, even if you can tell in the longer shots that he hasn’t quite mastered the art of acting with his entire body. More importantly, Chappie requires you to read it as earnest at times and sarcastic at others. You want it to be one or the other, but it’s just not. Having Die Antwoord there underscores that.
What Chappie didn’t need was to have Die Antwoord essentially playing themselves. Ninja plays a character named “Ninja.” Yo-landi Visser plays “Yo-landi.” There is a repeating motif of “Zef” appearing as graffiti in multiple places. During a climactic moment, Die Antwoord’s most famous song starts playing. Insofar as I even understand what Zef means, I take it as a sort of South African take on a rap-enshrined subculture or genre, like crunk, or hyphy. Which only goes so far in understanding its place in Chappie, because I can’t imagine a situation where “crunk” or “hyphy” reappearing in graffiti form would be helpful to a story. It feels untranslatable, and yes, elements of the exotic are a big part of both Die Antwoord and Chappie‘s appeal. Moreover, using Die Antwoord’s real names (“real”) and songs grafts Chappie‘s mythology to Die Antwoord’s, which does Chappie a disservice. It’s like having pre-fab lunacy exist within bespoke lunacy – Jones and Visser playing the same characters in a new setting, occasionally threatening to turn Chappie into South African rap’s answer to Kiss Saves Christmas. (Which, let’s be honest, wouldn’t make it entirely uncompelling either).
Ninja’s character does a hard left turn two thirds of the way into the film in a way that sort of kills the scene, but I accepted all the other characters with varying degrees of credulity. Hugh Jackman’s mulleted, Aussie aphorism-spouting (“I’m gonna be more cross than a frog in a sock!”) ED-209 designer is a particular highlight. But for the most part, the only character who really matters is Chappie. His rabbit-ear antennae and moving eyebrow bar and bouncing gait give him the quality of an anthropomorphic robot pigeon, at once clownish and strangely endearing, all while making Yo-landi dolls and asking existential questions. In short, slapstick gold. Have I mentioned he can tear the doors off cars and throws ninja stars? Because yeah. In a movie that makes me laugh and squeal this much, I’m not particularly hung up on deciphering the creator’s intent. I suspect he wanted to f*ck sh*t up, and succeeded.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.