The ability to enjoy the South African hip-hop duo Die Antwoord will likely prove the deciding factor in whether or not you can stomach Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s surreally disastrous sci-fi actioner. The film, which is centered on the titular police robot (Sharlto Copley) that gets uploaded with sentience, is little more than a 120-minute Die Antwoord music video with a Michael Bay budget. Rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser co-star in the film as the “parents” of Chappie, essentially playing fictionalized criminal versions of themselves who, oddly, listen to almost nothing but Die Antwoord songs. This shameless self-promotion is a crucial element of the film’s ineptitude and crassness, but the amount of bad decisions that went into this calamity goes far beyond just poor casting and soundtrack decisions.
As the film begins, Chappie is a police robot in not-so-far-off Johannesburg, supplied to the South African government by tech giant Tetra Vaal when police corruption and brutality forced the nation’s police force to be shut down. After the robot is injured during a stick-up, Tetra Vaal moves to destroy Chappie—that is, until Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a Tetra Vaal minion, gives him artificial intelligence, right before being forced to hand over the robot at gunpoint. The cartoonish nature of Ninja and Yo-Landi proves especially bizarre and off-putting when the script, co-written by Blomkamp, gives them sincere advice or morals to impart. At least Yo-Landi’s character isn’t presented as a vile, cold-blooded psychopath and then held up as a near-hero by film’s end like Ninja.
Perhaps in contrast to Hugh Jackman’s ludicrous Victor, a sadistic arms specialist and engineer who works in the same office as Deon, Ninja could be seen as the lesser of two preposterously evil lunatics. Victor created the Moose, the ED 209 to Chappie’s RoboCop, which doesn’t even figure into the narrative until the climactic shoot-out. The film is rife with scenes of adorable Chappie, the “retarded robot” per Ninja, looking at storybooks, learning about Tetra Vaal, and witnessing the savagery of the world. No matter how the toddler-like tone of Copley’s voice is justified, the character gets grating awfully quick, struck with an overt innocence that only goes to underline Blomkamp’s shallowly cynical outlook on humanity. The not-so-subtle underpinnings of all of this is a barely thought-out screed against capitalism, wherein both the corporations and, well, white men in general seek to utilize Chappie only to make money for them and then be taken apart for scrap. And, of course, the writer-director savors drawing out Chappie’s sadistic torture by a gang of hoodlums and dismantlement by Victor to highlight just how awful the world has become.
Much of the film’s central conflict boils down to a test of wills between a robot that would get bullied by Johnny Five and a gaggle of psychotic villains that gives the guys with the animal masks in You’re Next a run for their money. Ninja does finally harness Chappie’s hatred for humanity into a criminal enterprise, one that the robot hopes will allow him to fund a new body, as his battery is severely damaged and depleting quickly. Despite all this urgency, Chappie isn’t half the nuts-and-bolts action film that Elysium, Blomkamp’s previous feature, was, and the action fireworks are saved for a mere two or three scenes toward the end. And whereas gore was a central component to the wild world of Elysium, it’s only used once in Chappie, a moment that sticks out as the most strangely cruel in the film. The film’s exasperating atonality ruins or washes out any legitimate idea about identity, education, nature versus nurture, or artificial intelligence that Blomkamp hoped to evince. What’s left is a brazenly manipulative children’s movie that just happens to sport excessive cursing, rampant penis graffiti, and a body count that would rival most John McClane romps.