The great Roger Ebert once went on a fascinating riff about how particular movies deal with other fictional realities. For example: Could Harrison Ford’s President James Marshall schedule a White House screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark? If Madonna’s character in Swept Away turned on the radio and “La Isla Bonita” came on, what would she hear? There will never be definitive answers to these questions, and they mostly make for fun party conversation, but they are particularly useful to keep the brain active during movies as dull as Chappie.
The latest sci-fi allegory from District 9 and Elysium director Neill Blomkamp takes place in a not-too-distant future where the crime rate in Johannesburg has plummeted thanks to an indestructible robot police force designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) and overseen by weapons company CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). The robots—or scouts, as they’re called—have a relatively evolved level of artificial intelligence, but Deon believes he has developed the programming for another huge evolutionary step: a cyber brain that can learn, reason, and appreciate art in the same way a human’s can. He swipes a bot otherwise relegated to the scrap heap but is intercepted by thugs Ninja and Yolandi, played by the two members of South African hip-hop collective Die Antwoord (we’ll discuss them in a minute). They name the new creation Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley), teach him how to be a cartoonish gangbanger, and plan to use him to execute a big money heist while Deon struggles to take his creation back.
What follows is an hour of a reasonable-enough meditation on parenting styles followed by an inevitable series of too-loud action beats sparked by Deon’s rival engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman, just inhaling scenery) and a ridiculous series of events involving the full download of human consciousness. But here’s the thing that absolutely eclipses anything else going on in Chappie: The two gangster characters are named Ninja and Yolandi, but when those two humans perform as Die Antwoord, they also use the names Ninja and Yolandi. The pair also wear their own merchandise during most of the movie, sporting T-shirts that have their own names and images on them. Several Die Antwoord songs appear on the soundtrack. So are we to believe that these are the actual members of Die Antwoord, who in this not-that-far-off dystopia have given up on having a music career and now run drugs out of an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Johannesburg? Did the performers use the same names out of fear that they, as non-actors, would not be able to remember a second batch of fake names? Does Die Antwoord’s music exist in this universe, and if so, wouldn’t it be pretty easy for the police to identify and catch them? When crime boss Hippo (Blomkamp regular Brandon Auret) first started doing business with them, did he say, “Hey, didn’t you guys have kind of a big viral hit with ‘I Find U Freeky’ a couple of years back?” Or does the music exist but was created by two other people named Ninja and Yolandi? Are “Ninja” and “Yolandi” pretty common names in South Africa? The mind reels.
Those questions are all that Ninja and Yolandi bring to the table, as their performances could be described as distracting at best and disastrous at worst. Patel doesn’t fare much better—his character is so earnestly hellbent on trying to nurture Chappie by reading him stories and teaching him to paint that he comes across as something of a goofball lunatic and not a brilliant scientist. Chappie himself is lovingly and realistically rendered, though his personality shifts so often and so fast that it’s hard to know how we should feel about him. When we’re first introduced, he’s an overwhelmed infant, and by the time the credits roll, he’s John McClane. Is that an accurate representation of how artificial intelligence can evolve? Absolutely. Does it make for compelling drama? Not particularly. There are a lot of ideas kicking around in Chappie: the nature/nurture debate, the validity of various approaches to parenting, the moral and ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence, the very nature of sentience and consciousness. But none of those ideas are explored enough, and it’s hard to figure out how those philosophical inquiries fit into a climax with Jackman trying to murder everybody via an ED-209 clone. At least you’ll have the Die Antwoord Conundrum to distract you. C