Some movies are good despite being obviously bad. With Hugh Jackman (“The Wolverine”) and Die Antwoord’s Yolandi Vi$$er and Watkin Tudor Jones headlining, “Chappie” was supposed to be one of those movies. It’s weird, has comic appeal, has a uniquely Johannesburg cultural flavor, hosts penetrating philosophical questions and sob-worthy reels. But it fails where a crappy movie isn’t allowed to fail: It isn’t enjoyable to watch, and it doesn’t leave the audience with good feelings. It’s a minstrel show of violence followed by a wild stab at creative A.I. storytelling that may be compelling depending on how stupid you are, but at that point it doesn’t matter.
Quality 16/Rave Cinema
Cross your fingers and pray that “District 9” wasn’t Neill Blomkamp’s “Sixth Sense,” because he’s on a familiar downward spiral. Strangeness, as it’s leveraged in action movies, is a delicate participant and can’t be tonally dominant without subverting the action. Seating strangeness in the foreground of “Chappie” puts too much stress on a script not coordinated to juggle the shallow with the deep. This brings us to Hugh Jackman.
Hugh Jackman doesn’t know how to be a bad guy. He doesn’t have it in him. Compare his roles in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Swordfish” and “Real Steel.” Jackman can play a Byronic Hero, but he’s never had the emotional complexity to withstand the moral tidying in “Chappie.” Jackman is a chest-hair champion; when he tries to be a baddie, he just reads the script louder and goes harder in the paint. No fresh angles on the warmonger archetype are addressed here.
Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays an amazing Dev Patel. In fact, it’s doubtful that anyone could play Dev Patel as well as Dev Patel. Truly inspiring work. A+. The best acting is no acting. This brings us to Die Antwoord.
Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “The Answer”) is a band and personality-cult composed of Watkin Tudor Jones, stage name “Ninja” and Anri du Toit, stage name Yolandi Vi$$er. Their stage personas are borderline psychopathic, and they play these exact stage personas in “Chappie.” Even their names in “Chappie” are their band stage names. Their band’s music plays in the background multiple times. The level of influence these two non-actor actors have over the whole production of “Chappie” is ridiculous and surreal. It’s as if the movie was written to accommodate the off-set antics of these two cast members. If anything is extraordinary about this film, it’s the power Die Antwoord wields over it.
One arguable plus to this mistake of a science-fiction is that “Chappie” is littered with referential and insane gimmicks. Rubber chickens, “He-Man,” ninja stars and Anderson Cooper playing Anderson Cooper in his debut acting role. No kidding. Google Anderson Cooper and Control-F on “filmography.” This is the first movie to which he’s lent his incredible professional reputation.
“Chappie” is “Wall-E” fucked up beyond recognition. You love Chappie himself and you hate the world he’s born into. This film portrays South Africa as a sprawling, morally bankrupt, tech-hub trash heap. I want to accuse “Chappie” of cashing in on the American perception of Africa as a savage place, but Die Antwoord is as authentically South African as you can get, without actually being Zulu.
Honestly, this movie would have been way cooler if Chappie had been raised as a Zulu, instead of a cheap Zef meme. Remove all the poorly-acted antagonists and let’s have that movie instead. Die Antwoord is the answer to a question Hollywood never asked, and “Chappie” is cut from the same cloth, a buckshot attempt at comic steampunk. For each note it strikes true, it gruesomely mutilates two others. It’s a feel-bad flick, overall.