I first saw Die Antwoord at a "Making Time" party in Philly in the summer of 2010. The monthly warehouse rager had attracted an even weirder crowd than usual that evening. Like everyone else in attendance, I was drunk on Sparks—cans of which were being given away for free—and waiting for the South African rap group to go on. When Yolandi Visser and Ninja finally snaked their way onto the stage, they exuded confidence and their own peculiar, oddball charisma took total control of their surroundings. They similarly dominate the sci-fi film Chappie, which came out this weekend. Unfortunately, that's the only reason to see it.
A lot of us were rooting for Chappie because it was made by Neill Blomkamp, who started his career with the impressive District 9, a movie that dealt with issues of oppression and oppressed people while rooting elements like aliens and spaceships in a gritty, realistic world. But he followed that up withElysium, a Matt Damon–starring action flick that also grappled with big issues like class disparity, but was pretty much universally regarded as a failure thanks to its flat characters and lack of focus.
Chappie, sadly, is more of the same. The plot unfolds in a near-future S Africa where a robot police force has successfully clamped down on crime. The engineer who designed these robots (Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire) is attempting to develop a true artificial intelligence, and near the beginning of the movie he succeeds in implanting consciousness into a broken police bot—only to have the experimental machine (which has the mind of a baby) kidnapped by Ninja and Yolanda, who are playing criminal versions of themselves.
The rest of the film is basically "Die Antwoord hang out with a childlike robot and teach it about the world." Your tolerance for the movie will depend on how much that appeals to you—which probably explains the lousy reviews. And people who were on the set have said that the musicians were nightmares to work with. But whatever happened behind the scenes, I think the sequences between Chappie, Ninja, and Yolandi are filled with humor and a warped kind of sweetness; they're absurd and often jarring given the film's (unsuccessful) attempt to squeeze in some high-minded ideas about morality and consciousness, but they work on some level.
The rest of the movie is a hodgepodge of half-baked subplots that occasionally intersect but don't add up to anything. Patel never decides whether he wants to play his geeky character as a spastic computer hacker or a Big Bang Theory–esque dweeb. So he floats between being a grumpy, Redbull-chugging keystroke slammer and an out-of-touch dork. Hugh Jackman's villain is a bizarre mashup: a meathead, (possibly devoutly Christian?) soldier-turned-engineer who acts like an Australian version of Kenny Powers. Sigourney Weaver is in the film for about five minutes, possibly just to remind everyone that Blomkamp's next project will be an Alien sequel.
Combine that with the Die Antwoord focus and you get a real mess on your hands. I found the parts with the zef stars enjoyable enough, but I couldn't imagine what the movie would look like to those unfamiliar with the band's personal brand and quirks. A sci-fi-loving dad from Milwaukee might come to see a RoboCop update with Hugh Jackman… then spend nearly two hours watching two skinny freaks with bad haircuts telling a robot to steal cars.
I remember waiting in an alley, swaying in hot July rain, for Die Antwoord to get ushered into their van after the concert. I wanted to shake their hands, or have Ninja tell me to "fok off." The doors opened and a burly security guard lifted Yolandi into his arms and slid her into the van. I had a feeling, in that moment, that I'd seen a powerful thing that night. That I'd seen a culturally important moment, a moment that would stick with me. I wish Chappie gave me even one tenth of that feeling—and I hope Blomkamp can rebound from his last two features and make a successor worthy of District 9.