Chappie Dir. Neill Blomkamp

[Sony Pictures; 2015]

Styles: sci-fi
Others: District 9, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, RoboCop

I don’t know very much music by Die Antwoord, but I like what I’ve heard. I like it for the same reason that I like great art: it creates a world for itself to inhabit. There is something of these people that is of-somewhere-else, which is notably different from the more obvious not-of-this-earth. They are of this plane, and another one, a phantom transmission coming in from this place where the commonplace (hip hop, techno, garbage and gangster culture) has mutated into some other strand and echoed back. The whole thing that I get into about art and movies and everything is this otherworld-ness, seeing the reflection of yourself, but morphed into an ideal or an exaggeration. And the world — that static-webbed transmission — of Chappie might be from that place from which Die Antwoord hails, full of these weirdo twists on our world — where the members of Die Antwoord are their true selves, and they live in their true dwellings, live their true lives — which has no real ties besides the temporal to what we consider to be our reality.

The characters played by Yolandi and Ninja are such an integral part of Chappie; both the character — a robot with real consciousness, forking off in every direction of indecision and action like any person — and the movie. They come in as seeming evildoers, criminals who are only looking out for themselves, shooting brightly colored automatic weapons that appear to have both been born out of thin air and be direct reflections of their personalities. They make complete sense immediately; they live in some abandoned structure, of course, which is filled with electronics and collectibles, and they wear neon-colored clothes with catchphrases emblazoned upon them whenever they aren’t wearing bizarre Die Antwoord shirts with their own faces writ large on their chests. It is trashy and bizarre and magical.

There is something in Chappie about artificial intelligence, but it seems to be the least important part of the movie. The world’s first robotic police force has been deployed in Johannesburg, South Africa, and its developer, Deon (Dev Patel), has created an experimental consciousness program, which turns into Chappie, a robot running only on five days worth of battery. Chappie learns like a child, but faster; in the five days, he goes from being a stuttering, blubbering baby into something that stretches beyond the confines of “adulthood.” He cannot be defined in our terms, as he has other terms. But that is a foregone conclusion; whatever the future of robotics holds, it is obvious that they will always be the “other,” separate from whatever it is that humans and other animals are, the “organics” and the “inorganics,” if you will, which might eventually be equal but will never be the same.

The thing that director Neill Blomkamp does to turn Chappie from a diatribe on the semantics of consciousness and living and into something that breathes is its world, is to owed focus on Die Antwoord — to their performances, to the breadth of their emotion. Chappie calls them Mommy and Daddy, and there is something heavy in that, to their relationships, to the way that they are developed slowly and with confidence, knowing that when you first see them you are going to judge them, but making you come around and see them for the compassionate, feeling, sympathetic characters that they are. All of the ideas about technology melt away into a simple story of black sheep, outsiders, unaccepted but not unlovable. Chappie has a sticker on his forehead, very on the nose: it says “REJECT” in bold capital letters. Of course, that fits into the natural course of the story very well, and doesn’t come across quite so forced, but I have few doubts it will be lost on many: if there is a distinct point to all of this, that sticker and all it implies is likely it.

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