As a sci-fi action thriller with prodding questions about private sector weapons production, the drone/surveillance state, and the nature of consciousness and personal identity, Chappie is an utter failure and deserves all of the vitriol that’s it’s been drowning in. As a feature-length Die Antwoord music video, however, it’s a winning success. I’m honestly happy to report that the distinguished pedigree of pop-music movie vehicles like Cool as Ice, Crossroads, Glitter, Spice World, and KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park is alive & well in 2015. Honestly. I’m happy with Chappie for what it is: a two hour long commercial for a South African “rap-rave group”, a living, breathing internet meme that scored a surprise one-hit wonder status five years ago.
Although Die Antwoord has released three full-length albums and nearly a dozen music videos at this point, it’s still tempting to categorize them as a one hit wonder. Hell, pop star Tiffany has eight full-length albums and a documentary and she’s still defined by the success of “I Think We’re Alone Now”. Die Antwoord’s own “I Think We’re Alone Now” is a 2010 trash pop oddity called “Enter The Ninja.” Unlike a lot of Die Antwoord’s more repetitive, rave-friendly songs, it’s a real ear-worm in its own bizarre way and it had the added benefit of introducing a their then-fresh world of graffiti-soaked visual art in an eye-popping music video that went “viral”. In the five years since the release of “Enter The Ninja” their act has worn a little thin on me (as one-hit wonders often do), but they’ve developed a devoted niche audience for their version of the South African “zef” aesthetic, an audience that takes their music & visual art very seriously. If Die Antwoord was conceived as a joke or a meme, it’s impressive how committed they are to the gag, seemingly integrating it into their personal lives & physical appearances to the point where it doesn’t matter whether they’re “for real” or not.
It’s no surprise, then, that Die Antwoord’s singular hit “Enter the Ninja” plays over the final shot & end credits of Chappie. When I first spotted them in the trailer for the film, I assumed their role was a severely limited one, a glorified cameo. I was wrong. Die Antwoord are to Chappie what Vanilla Ice was to Cool as Ice, what Eminem was to 8 Mile, what The Village People were to Can’t Stop the Music. This is their vehicle. They play themselves. Their music dominates the soundtrack. They flaunt their own merch. Their visual aesthetic (crude phalluses, expletives, and all) is drawn all over every inch of the set. What outfits vocalists Ninja & Yolandi Visser are going to wear from scene to scene are vastly more interesting choices than what their far more famous co-stars Hugh Jackman or Sigourney Weaver are going to do or say. Even the basic appeal of the titular robot Chappie revolves around the duo, since they raise him like their baby and teach him to walk & talk their brand of zef culture. This is unmistakably Die Antwoord’s movie.
The movie vehicle for flash in the pan one hit wonders was an artform I had assumed long dead, but Chappie brings it back to life with the modern update that the group in question started essentially as a meme. Director Neil Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) tried to elevate the material with questions like “Where is our privatization of military weapons production & law enforcement headed?”, “Why are we so cruel to what we don’t understand?”, “What is a soul?” and blah, blah, blah. In this line of questioning, Chappie is nowhere near as insightful as its robot movie ancestors, like the near-30 years old (and near perfect) RoboCop or, hell, even the severely flawed Short Circuit. It is, however, particularly exciting as a return to form for fans of campy vehicles for pop music icons and one-trick ponies. In this case, Die Antwoord. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking sci-fi action flick with well-considered themes explored to their full potential, you will hate Chappie. If you like (or are amused by) Die Antwoord and wonder what a trashy action movie about armed robots & roving gangs ransacking Johannesburg that Ninja & Yolandi would imagine themselves starring in would possibly look like, you have a pretty good chance of enjoying yourself. The only thing it was missing on that end was a live performance.