Some thoughts on Chappie

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I took my son, 13, to see Chappie last night. I warned him that the reviews have not been good. I wanted to see it because I love the way director Neill Blomkamp thinks about images; there were moments in District 9 where I had to remember to blink. Based on the promotional materials, what I was expecting was a kind of heartwarming sci-fi fable about a robot with an innocent soul who teaches the world something about what it means to be human, a sort of slightly-more-adult version of Short Circuit. I’m also a fan of Die Antwoord, the bizarre rap duo who have supporting roles in the movie, and wanted to see if they were as interesting as actors as they are musical performers. The reviews had made it clear that Blomkamp had slighted his attention to story at the expense of something, and that the fable-like qualities of the narrative didn’t sit well next to the science-fiction and action qualities.

Well, the movie pretty much took the top of my son’s head off. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more excited about a movie before. He couldn’t sit still afterward. He started using references to “termite art” and the limits of narrative and wanted to know all about Die Antwoord and life in Johannesburg. It was one of the most exciting moviegoing experiences of my life as a father.

Why are the reviews for Chappie so harsh? I can think of three reasons. The first, most generous reason, is that the screenplay has a number of real problems. The largest of which is: for certain story points to happen, all of the non-robot characters in the movie have to behave irrationally. And that’s a real problem. It’s a common error in action spectacles to think up the “cool parts” of the movie first, and then force the story into a shape that serves the action beats. In this case (for instance), Hugh Jackman is a robot designer whose big ugly robot has been passed over by the robot company in preference for Dev Patel’s smaller, more human-looking robots. So Hugh Jackman hacks into the mainframe and causes all of Dev Patel’s robots to short-circuit, causing a crisis that can only be solved by his big ugly robot. The fact that Jackman’s tinkering will be easily traced back to him never enters his mind, and the monstrousness of his act — sabotaging his entire company’s existence and creating panic on the streets of Johannesburg — far outweighs any possible benefit to him.

And that’s just one example of the kind of plot problem the narrative has. It has lots of problems like that, where characters do things that not only don’t make sense, but seem counterintuitive. Which is why the movie works best as a fable, a fable where “science stuff” like “creating a program for consciousness” is as simple as downing some Red Bulls and typing a lot on a computer and the 2.5 petabytes that the human brain stores can be downloaded onto a thumb drive.

The second reason for all the bad reviews is that the movie is a much harsher viewing experience than the promotional materials suggest. There is real violence in it, real cruelty, and real ugliness, which doesn’t sit comfortably next to the fable-like nature of the story. The plot points keep telling you “suspend your disbelief, this is a story about magic,” but it keeps telling it in the vocabulary of an inner-city drama, like E.T. crossed with Menace II Society.

But the third reason for the bad reviews, I think, is the strong presence in the movie of “Zef culture,” which is the culture that Die Antwoord sprang from and which it celebrates. Zef is the white-trash culture of Johannesburg, and to the eyes of Americans it can be quite abrasive indeed. Or rather, it is abrasive, and it is meant to be so, for reasons of self-identification. From the trailers for Chappie, I gathered that the movie was set in Johannesburg and might feature a smidgen of Zef culture based on the participation of Die Antwoord, but the way that Chappie inundates its narrative with Zef and makes it, at its heart, the story of a class war between the snooty corporate upper class and the underdog Zefs. In the same way that The Jungle Book is a story about parenting, where the panther wants to train the boy to prepare for human adulthood and the bear wants to train the boy to remain an animal, Chappie gives its Mowgli two conflicting sets of parents, one who wants Chappie to be an artist and poet, and one who wants Chappie to be a gangster in the Zef style.

That leaves Blomkamp, an artist with an obvious love for Zef style, in the middle. And his casting of Die Antwoord as “themselves” (more or less) is a key to understanding what the movie is really about. Die Antwoord is a project that both comments on and joyfully celebrates Zef culture, really elevates it to the level of international high art (which could be seen as condescending but time will tell). The point is, Chappie brings Zef, which is strongly delineated in the movie from other lower-class cultures in Johannesburg, to a sudden international cinematic audience. My son’s brain caught on fire from the experience, he couldn’t sit still afterwards, he kept hopping up and pacing and talking about the ideas in the movie, and while he clearly saw the narrative problems in the script, he also saw the movie, correctly I think, as alive in a way that few other movies are.

If nothing else, Chappie feels like a very personal movie, a movie that says “this is where I come from, this is who I am, this is what I stand for,” in a way that the more marketable Elysium does not. It may fail, but it fails in an extremely interesting way, which is something that none of the reviews I’ve read have pointed out. If our international cinema had more movies this interesting, we’d have a much more vital, vibrant multiplex experience in our lives.

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2 Responses to “Some thoughts on Chappie
  1. Blake says:

    I’m just glad that ED-209 can still get work. It’s tough out there!

  2. Tim says:

    It sounds awful.