I can hear the peanut gallery groaning: “Oh for fuck’s sake - Blomkamp and Copley playing with Hollywood money, amusing themselves again with South Africanisms…”
South Africans have honed their set-‘em-up-to-knock-‘em-down skills to a sad, fine art. We complain that locals aren’t good enough to crack it abroad or compete internationally, and when they do, we shoot them down, as if they’ve grown too big for their boots, and we have the power and authority to now put them back in their place... What the hell?!
The potential for this looms largely here.
Just how lekker (cool) is local?
South African born director Neill Blomkamp has given the Sci-Fi genre a welcome kick in the pants across his first three international feature films (District 9, Elysium and Chappie), injecting heavy South African elements into high action futuristic themes. Sure, he’s borrowed from many who came before him - but as they encourage writers and moviemakers, stick to what you know. He knows South Africa, and besides past politically laden struggle movies, Leon Schuster hidden camera prank flicks and bad accents in Lethal Weapon 2, the White Saffie identity hasn’t really received much mainstream exposure (beyond the bad racist image). And Blomkamp seems to have done more to throw a spotlight on this within the short span of a few years than others have across decades previously.
Whether his affinity for his former home (his American accent coming along nicely) is a loving homage of a unique post-Apartheid culture of the former oppressor, or a loathsome one (his characters not exactly always on the shiny side of virtuous with stereotypical bit players), the phenomenon has been thrust front and centre nonetheless, as a welcome counterpoint for the American action hero and British accented villain.
RoboCop in Jo'burg?
In Chappie some of the basics smack of Paul Verhoeven’s mid-‘80s classic RoboCop (the recent remake of which I didn’t run out to see). Blomkamp has to be a fan as here a robotic police force is instated to take on the unmanageable Johannesburg crime element, run by an American corporate (like OCP in Detroit), with one of its shelved programmes (spearheaded by Hugh Jackman’s Aussie character) reminiscent of the bulky ED 209 robot police droid from RoboCop. (The droids in Chappie even sound like they're voiced by original RoboCop star Peter Weller!)
Although here a human cop isn’t fused as a cyborg, but rather a fully mechanised reject droid is reprogrammed to become self-aware, conscious and sentient. However, it falls in the hands of a criminal gang planning a big heist, teaching it their Zef lifestyle and mannerisms.
Along with Blomkamp’s success trajectory is that of Die Antwoord (The Answer), making a mammoth splash abroad with their unique musical style fusion (which many believe they merely lifted from other cultures and performers, but that’s not exactly the subject at hand). So, the collaboration of these two entities seems like kismet or a logical step(?).
Initially back when this was announced I thought the Zef rap team were mere cameo performers in the movie, but they are in fact a pivotal central core of the narrative. Yolandi and Ninja pretty much play themselves but within the context of their perceived gangster personas (their third gang member an American) - with everything from the white trash / Cape Flats amalgam attitude and accents, to clothing, distinctive hairstyles, music and more in tact.
Here they have a huge debt to pay a crime-lord (played by Auret, as a white guy with a full-on black personality!), and kidnap the designer of the robot cops to disable the mechanised droids to allow them to pull their big job without cop interference. He has however perfected a programme to give these robots consciousness, but without the go-ahead, stole a damaged one to test it. At Die Antwoord’s industrial hide-out, the droid is reprogrammed, and dubbed Chappie - enter Copley as the voice of this “new born” entity, taught like a child by Yolandi, but abused by the aggressive Ninja. Chappie’s rapid development and mere existence becomes the central point affecting the lives of everyone around him, and the city as a whole.
With the international public taking to Die Antwoord like a fresh new phenomenon, South Africans are divided, either loving or despising them (that set-up / knock-down theory in my opening also naturally at play regarding them).
Since Elvis Presley and The Beatles movies have been made linked to, or directly showcasing artist, including everyone from The Who, Kiss and Alice Cooper, to Pink Floyd and The Spice Girls. Not many South African musical groups have had their own movie, and while far from a "musical", this is more than one huge marketing boost for them, and can definitely be labelled as Die Antwoord’s feature film legacy. (Their music also featuring heavily in the soundtrack).
Script vs Visuals
To say the story is far-fetched would be to forget what cinematic genre this falls under(!), and analysing and criticizing the technicalities and probabilities of AI and its principles are moot, as we’re pretty far off developing systems that can match or outdo the exceptional functions and 'computing’ abilities of the human brain, so nitpicking Blomkamp’s take on it is futile. Chappie doesn’t take itself too seriously - Ninja runs around with a luminous yellow automatic rifle, (hilariously) swearing “Poes!”, and teaching a robot how to act gangsta, for god’s sake! This is also where a lot of the cringe-worthy and silly moments creep in, like Chappie imitating and adopting the Zef persona, and getting “blinged-out” (fuck I hate that term!) with gold chains. Scenes like these would have kids rolling with laughter, but the language and violence makes this a movie not aimed at them…
There is a good dose of explosive action and some humour (sometimes not very successful, like the abovementioned), but underneath it one can see the subtext of how an outsider witnesses humanity’s moral corruption and decline through fresh eyes, and how an innocent can be moulded by its surroundings, yet have the cognitive ability to judge the basics of right and wrong.
Ninja’s character is one of an abusive, selfish father, while Yolandi instantly gravitates to motherly instincts, and for a filmmaker to have you feel compassion for a machine when it gets brutalized is certainly no easy feat.
As established in District 9, Blomkamp doesn’t depict a slick digital future, but its gritty, grimey, damaged underbelly. The CGI seamlessly blends in with the live action, giving it a great look.
Die Antwoord are performers and live their personas (which I’m sure can become tiring, unless it has enveloped them completely by now). But on the acting front this is more than mere music videos, and it is often hit and miss. Sometimes they knock it perfectly, but then easily lose touch and come across as hamming it. Sure, one can see them as “playing themselves” as they’ve done very successfully in Harmony Corine’s bizarre short Umshini Wam, but the risk is in selling the idea of them in these roles from the get-go, otherwise you’re losing a large audience chunk right from the start. One faction will see this as brave while another will see it as opportunistic by injecting a fad (of Zef culture) in an attempt to try and be different.
Copley performed and voiced Chappie, doing what he does best under his collaborator’s direction; Weaver plays it very straight; Patel succeeds as the nerd robot developer; while Jackman seems to relish his macho homegrown Aussie stereotype.
The past and future
Neill Blomkamp has hardly forgotten his roots, shooting two of his three movies in his birthland, incorporating local actors and crew, and remembering many who played a role in his first success (District 9), like Jason Cope (inserted in a small role), Auret grabbing his gang-lord character by the nuts, and of course, Sharlto Copley, who has became a bona fide star in his own right since their first big hit.
Recent news again proved how divided this little planet is, when both joy and disgust got uttered at the news of Blomkamp possibly taking on the next chapter of the Alien franchise… we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out, but if nothing else, we should be damn proud that a local may become a part of that legendary legacy.
4 / B
5 - Blistering
4 - Hot
3 - Smolder
2 - Room Temperature
1 - Fizzled
0 - Extinguished