My experience of Chappie came with a bit of baggage: I’d just spent a good half-hour beforehand reading woebegone reviews of MOMA’s Björk exhibit. Critics griped not so much about the encroachment of pop music in the museum setting, nor about the musician’s artistry, but about the inelegance of this particular hybrid’s conception by Klaus Biesenbach. The same could be said of director Neill Blomkamp shaping an entire film around the band Die Antwoord.
Make no mistake: like the Björk retrospective, Chappie is a fetishistic exhibit of Die Antwoord paraphernalia. Now, I’ll admit that even when the band’s music isn’t couched in one of the most ridiculous movies in recent memory — a movie that is, it’s worth noting, ridiculous largely because of its smothering marriage to Die Antwoord — I’m never exactly desperate to listen to it. I tend to think the band’s occasional appeal is its neon toxicity. You don’t listen to Die Antwoord, your death drive does. For me at least, this masochism hardly ever lasts as long as a whole song, let alone a whole movie. Die Antwoord are highly aware; in an interview with the Guardian back in 2010, they said, “Is this [Die Antwoord] fucking terrible, like fucking retardedly the worst thing ever or the most amazing thing in the entire universe?”
And while it’s best not to judge something based on preconceived notions of taste, Chappie turns out to feature only preconceived notions of the band (not to mention of robo-morality and every other topic it reexamines and reduces with aplomb). Though the rappers are playing professional “zef” gangsters instead of professional musicians masquerading as “zef” gangsters, they’re still Die Antwoord’s Yolandi and Ninja, they still wear Die Antwoord T-Shirts and graffiti walls with their logos, and they listen exclusively to Die Antwoord. And so, inevitably, do we (except on the rare occasion where the film suddenly shifts to a Hans Zimmer score).
When trailers for the film were first released, it didn’t seem that the whole thing would pivot on Die Antwoord’s manic and unstable axis — they looked to be supporting characters. On occasion, you could say, “I recognize those gold teeth — it’s the Die Antwoord guy in the background, again. Cool. Next.” But it turns out that, 15 minutes in, they hijack Dev Patel’s kindly character’s AI-creating mission. As if to create the largest possible gulf between erudition and gangster posturing, Patel wants to teach his baby robot poetry and painting, while the gangsters attempt to school him in gun-wielding and, perhaps worse, fist-bumping.
The band was actually a crucial part of the basis for the film. Wired mentions that Blomkamp says in the intro to his book Chappie: The Art of the Movie:
There was this really weird crossover that happened while I was writing Elysium—and Elysium has a lot of robotics in it—at the same time I was listening to a lot of Die Antwoord’s tracks. All of a sudden I got this idea for this robot—like the Elysium robots, it was a kind of police/security machine—being hijacked by this band that I was listening to. I don’t know where the hell that idea came from, but that was the genesis for Chappie.
He isn’t the first director to have been wooed by the band’s aesthetic of surrealist trash: David Fincher originally tried to cast Yolandi Visser in the English-language version of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. But through this attraction to the band, Chappie negates itself: It seems Blomkamp’s ultimate aim with this AI film is to show that soulfulness isn’t strictly “organic” or human. He wants to have created a typically Blomkampian moral and existential allegory — but Die Antwoord’s whole exaggerated schtick is glamorized amorality. Just as they do to Chappie himself, the second the duo enters the film, they hijack the whole thing from inside, leaving the film’s moral shell bizarrely intact while jumbling its guts. Though it does parallel the sudden imposition of their mannerisms on Chappie’s childishly pliable ego, I can’t imagine Blomkamp thinking,”I’ll begin the film as a good film, then have Die Antwoord hijack it and turn it into a bad film in order to qualitatively emulate the influence of bad parenting on Chappie.” Picture Harmony Korine finishing a project started by Spielberg, and you won’t be far from what we have here.
Yolandi and Ninja — as Yolandi and Ninja — both eventually become emotionally close to the robot they’ve stolen to help them with a heist. Ninja takes on the role of abusive, but secretly loving — and ultimately contrite — father, and Yolandi pretty immediately (and nonsensically) steps into the role of concerned nurturer, naming Chappie and chiding Ninja with “He’s just a child!” every time he tries to show Chappie how to gun someone down, to the point where this becomes her squeaky catchphrase.
On its own, Die Antwoord’s firearm glorification seems something of an amusing and transparent affectation — a key symbol in their post-post-post-post-something-or-other sensibilities. But with Chappie, the film starts by showing the influence of bad parenting — and how impressionable a child may be — using them as negative, but ultimately loving, examples. Yet since it tries to capture Die Antwoord through Die Antwoord’s own highly self-promoting aesthetic, the film wholly glamorizes all of their more negative influences, putting a fashionable spin on its own attempt at a more complex allegory of child abuse.
It also shouldn’t go without mention that “zef” culture predominantly represents a white South African working class. In the film, the glorified thugs are just white musicians, whereas rare cameos by black South Africans depict them as street thugs, representations of ruthlessly violent “real world” urban life: so much is explicitly stated by Ninja in the film as he drops Chappie off near a group of mostly black men who proceed to beat and burn Chappie.
Though it’s been posited that “zef” culture evokes a sense of post-apartheid shame and depicts a country flailing to morally stabilize itself, it’s still hard to see the band, with their typical rap goals of wealth and power (though without the application to a disenfranchised population), as revolutionary heroes. In a film that seems to be about consciousness and morality — the people (consciousness-endowed robots included) vs. the actual machine (corporate dehumanization) — Die Antwoord doesn’t seem the most effective exemplar of proletariat insurgency and heroism.
Then there’s the sheer fact that every time you find yourself getting engaged in the narrative (with stunning special effects and some undeniable attempts at actual heartfelt filmmaking, this isn’t completely impossible), you’re taken out of it by another Yolandi doll or Die Antwoord logo slapped onto a dilapidated building. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but imagine all those people, not far away, staring into the simulacral eyes of a swan dress-clad mannequin, wishing they could just have the unadulterated experience of listening to Björk’s music on their own terms.
In the same way that critics have complained about Biesenbach’s spin on his subject, in Chappie, the iconizing effect of a powerful, directorial fan’s vision of celebrity musicians diminishes both their art and his own. After watching this film, with its undercooked amalgamation of pop iconography and attempted moral filmmaking, I realized that I would so much have rather just listened to my standard half of a Die Antwoord song, then watched Wall-E.