Chappie star Yolandi Vizzer said of the “Zef” movement that defines Cape Town rave-rap group Die Antwoord, “It’s associated with people who soup their cars up and rock gold and shit. Zef is, you’re poor but you’re fancy, you’re sexy, you’ve got style.” Her home-on-the-Afrikaans-range expressionist sentiments on Zef appropriately sum up Chappie, a mouthy sci-fi lark that manages to exist in the schizophrenic space between philosophy class and the thug lyfe. Narcotic in design, Chappie has the ability to be thoughtful, sardonic, batty, stupid, far-fetched, irreverent, intoxicated and absurd in the same sentence. To get a feel for what’s in store, imagine Chappie grabbing his robot junk, slouching like a gangster and wiping at his nonexistent nose before rapping on the heady notions of psychological impermanence and the potential of conscious transference. Those of lesser imaginative are damned to misunderstand the intent in such a film, a “how did this even get made” kind of product whose deranged sensibilities are delirious by design, but that’s their problem. In the “in” circles, they pity such handicapped imaginations. So hollers the hip-hopper handbook, haters gonna hate.
Much like Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer worked in tandem on Interstellar – Nolan gave Zimmer “feelings and themes” he wanted the film to communicate without ever revealing to Zimmer the genre of Interstellar. Zimmer then cooked up the backbone of a score and his work went on to influence Nolan’s developing script, etc. etc. – Chappie and Die Antwoord are intrinsically unified. They’re brothers from another mother. Droogs of the same breed. To drawn a line in the sand between the perfectly ironic poppiness of Die Antwoord’s counter-culture movement and the Hollywood blockbuster construct of Chappie is a hopeless exercise that I don’t seek to understand. Basing estimations of Chappie on existing models and traditions of big-budget (Chappie‘s was apparently 50 million) filmmaking is impossible since those models and traditions have been promptly, purposefully rocketed into space like they’re Ellen Ripley at the tail end of Alien. Neill Blomkamp‘s screenplay for Chappie talks about evolution and, ironically, it sails so much in the face of traditional movie-making models that it in itself is a kind of a quasi-evolution of the movie-making game. It’s so f*cking meta.
The Antwoord duo preserves their stage names in Chappie because why not? Ninja (played by Ninja) sports his customary military mullet – a hairstyle that came to him in a dream – and slurs his way through chunky Afrikaan slang not too far off from the head-scratching lexicon of Clockwork Orange or, more recently, Attack the Block. Expect a BuzzFeed article titled “What the What Do These 21 Chappie Phrases Mean?” Female-half Yolandi rocks the same violently pink “Who Wants Tits?” belly shirt she does in Antwoord’s deliciously off-color “Baby’s On Fire” music video. A later wardrobe change has her sporting a “CHAPPiE” crop top. Even robo-Chappie himself has got a not-so-subtly spraypainted “ZEF” tramp stamp. Blomkamp’s movie self-promotes both itself and Die Antwoord like a hungry hip-hop artist. It’s so f*cking metal.
We’ve rapped about Chappie as counter culture in film form but in the same vein, it’s also very much Blomkamp’s attempt to define a foreign zeitgeist in a very specific place and time. His efforts to justify, or rather rationalize, South African’s prominent underground civilization to the world appears lost on many and I would like to assume that that’s also part of the point. Not everyone’s going to get it but no worries here. Good riddance. In that line of thinking, Chappie is an intentional affront to good taste. Where we expect our hero robot to zag, he zigs. We expect him to mature out of a pubescent state but he’s too busy twisting up zig-zags. What Mad Max did for dystopian MCs, Chappie does for punk-samurai robots. What Star Wars achieved for flowy robes, Chappie pulls off for in-your-face neon. If you boiled down the guttural madness of the Matrix Reloaded rave scene, dosed it with some golden-toothed slang and outfitted its doltishness with automatic weapons, you’d have something resembling Chappie. “Radical” attempts to describes it but I think only “Zef” can properly sum it up.
But what the hell is Chappie about, Matt? Well anyone who’s heard the electronic mumblings of “I am Chappie” through their radio waves know that Blomkamp’s third features a robot. Anyone who’s seen a Chappie poster knows that said robot sports bling bling. Peeps who be trolling the trailers are probz aware that Hugh Jackman‘s skull sprouted a maybe-mullet for the film and he’s basically the heavy here, though very much not in the way you might at first have thunk. What you don’t know is that Chappie is not in the least bit the film you expect it to be. Especially if you’ve tapped into the overwhelming negative reception of the film. Chappie is way more weird, way more bonkers, way more gaga than you would anticipate of a movie with this kind of budget and backing. Were Chappie to meet ET, he’d ask him to politely bite the curb. If he paired up with Mac, he’d put his deformed visage gently “to sleep.” If you thought Matt Damon in a mech suit was wackadoo, wait until you get a load of Chappie. He’s so f*cking manic.
And that’s really what it comes down to, Chappie as a character is worth the price of admission alone. With Sharlto Copley voicing the character, he’s got more grit to him than a offroader’s fender and is far from the innocent robot the promotional material paints him as. Sure, he initially wields paintbrushes instead of PPKs but his jive-talking mannerisms arrive with a limited learning curve and soon enough he’s parroting the gangbangin’ verbiage of his too-so-Kosher mommy and daddy. Comedy cometh.
In an age that is so obnoxiously focused on franchise world-building, Blomkamp excels in the thematically exacting specificity of his future-set pasquinades. He’s clearly having fun but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t also have an agenda. In District 9, we got a taste for an “inventive” history of South Africa in Blomkamp’s straight-faced satirical portrait of refuges. Camps thick with burned trash and thin on food rubbed up against legal boundaries blurred by racist governmental ordinances. Blomkamp recently ousted himself for “f*cking up Elysium” though I’m not willing to dismiss that work just yet as it provided one of the more provocative pictures of the institutional evils of bureaucracy. And (did I mention??) had Matt Damon in a mech-suit. Chappie gets to ideas of bankrupt corporate morality and existential crises that also stops to ask how we can live with the knowledge that we will die? I’m…intrigued? It also features a kind of ED-209, appropriately named the Moose, stomping on a character and pulling him gorily in half. It’s about something until it’s not. It’s self-involved and batshit until it’s genuinely provocative. It’s that improbably rare, inimitable kinda “WTF was that?!” movie.
Look, I’m not here to convince you that you’re going to like Chappie because in earnest, this is not a movie with the masses in mind. It’s the kind of “hey, welcome to the party” film that attempts to ask big questions but winds up with concepts infinitely more silly – a la how many Playstation 4s does it take to house a person’s consciousness – but that doesn’t derail the intrigue that exists there in the first place. At least not for me. We cannot dismiss the stoner without at least hearing him out. Sometimes, he has a hell of a point. Occasional narrative poverty gives way to a much more important feeling of style, expressionism and innovation – the “gold and shit” – in what is most assuredly a one-of-a-kind, totally berserk robot gangster misadventure for the anals of f*cking history. On the coolness/acclaim axis, Chappie‘s lightning in a bottle existence gangsta leans towards being impenetrably hip and so be it. My mom doesn’t understand hip hop and that’s ok with me. I don’t bother trying to convince her because that’s missing the point. If you’re not in on the whole shebang, that’s your problem.