Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
Do you know who Die Antwoord are? I didn’t before walking into “Chappie.” Not really. In retrospect, I’d vaguely heard of the South African rave-rap group because a fellow school mom mentioned to me about a year ago that she was seeing them in concert, and that they were terrible, but they were also a blast live. (Here’s a link to their best-known song, a catchy little ditty called “I Fink U Freeky,” which has over 61 million YouTube views as of this writing. You’re welcome.)
As you can see, Die Antwoord are a singular artistic force. They’re also the real stars of “Chappie” — or at least, two of the three members, Ninja and Yo-Landi, are. They are not actors, nor are they truly “acting” per se, but rather playing a version of themselves in all their tatted, grungy glory. Director Neill Blomkamp, who made a splash in 2009 with his bad-ass sci-fi debut “District 9,” said he listened to a lot of Die Antwoord while working on his 2013 follow-up, the disappointing “Elysium.” So, voila! Ninja and Yo-Landi are the stars of “Chappie.” Not Dev Patel. Not Hugh Jackman. Not even Hugh Jackman’s mullet.
Ninja and Yo-Landi are the ones who propel the narrative — although the script, which Blomkamp co-wrote with his wife, Terri Tatchell, doesn’t go in any directions you haven’t been many times before. “Chappie” is essentially a mash-up of “RoboCop,” “Short Circuit” and “Transcendence.” It raises all the questions about artificial intelligence and the nebulous relationship between man and machine which we’ve pondered in superior films from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “WarGames” to “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” to “Her.” But it provides no novel answers, no fresh insight. While the visual effects are spectacularly seamless, they’re in the service of a movie which devolves from vaguely funny to just-plain silly to numbingly gory.
In the beginning, it’s the near future: 2016, to be exact. Things have gone to hell pretty quickly, it appears from fake news footage, but especially in Blomkamp’s hometown of Johannesburg. The government has put a robot police force in place to keep the peace, the brainchild of mild-mannered engineer Deon Wilson (Patel). His boss at the private defense firm is the icily ambitious American Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver); his office rival is ex-military, the devious Vincent Moore, played by Jackman as a collection of bad Australian stereotypes (mullet, khaki shorts, hiking boots, weaponry on his hip).
But Deon has dreams of using the technology to create something greater, more sophisticated. After many sleepless nights, he finally devises a method of artificial intelligence, which he wants to place inside one of these robot police officers to see how much better they can work when they think and feel for themselves. Naturally, his project doesn’t go nearly as well as planned when the test robot falls into the criminal hands of Ninja, Yo-Landi and their sidekick, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who only want to use the creation to pull off a big heist.
The thing with Ninja and Yo-Landi is, it’s difficult to tell whether we’re supposed to take them seriously or think they’re ridiculous. Ninja is an overconfident, trash-talking buffoon, but he’s also an expert shot and he can be legitimately dangerous. Yo-Landi seems vapid and soulless, but functioning as an ersatz mother to the robot — whom she names Chappie — brings out a softer and warmer side which makes her strangely relatable. While they’re initially off-putting, they admittedly become fascinating; but a little of them goes a long way, especially in an overlong film.
Chappie himself, meanwhile, is annoying from start to finish. Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley portrays the robot through motion capture and voice work. While the physicality of the performance is impressive as he evolves from skittish child to swaggering gangster, the consistently hyperactive, one-note way Copley delivers his dialogue remains grating throughout. Unfortunately, comparisons to Jar Jar Binks are all too apt.
The fight for Chappie’s survival becomes a fight for the survival of the entire city, when Vincent sabotages the robot police squad in order to unleash his own behemoth, military-inspired crime-fighting force. Blomkamp essentially abandons the intellectual and moral themes he’d presented earlier in favor of sheer brute strength. “Chappie” gets overloaded with noisy, repetitive carnage as it reaches its climax, then shifts jarringly into empty uplift.
The movie itself may not stay with you for very long after it’s over, but Die Antwoord’s music does — for better or worse.