South African director Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9 was an unexpected delight. Ostensibly a sci-fi about prawn-like aliens who have been accepted into the Johannesburg population, it is instead an endearing and sobering look at the plight of refugees. Chappie is his third feature film, after Elysium in 2013, and I was expecting the same wry observation of white South Africa. Instead I got a story that seemed to replicate District 9‘s edgy style but without the same substance.
We are in the near-future in Johannesburg and the police department has rolled out one hundred robots, developed by the Tetravaal corporation, to deal with the rising violent crime rate. Two developers for the company, Deon (Dev Patel) and Vincent (Hugh Jackman) are competing to convince the Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) to fund their new inventions – Deon’s artificial intelligence component and Vincent’s hyper-military machine, Moose. Both fail but Deon steals a soon-to-be crushed robot to test his invention. On route, he is kidnapped by low life crims played by rap/rave group Die Antwoord‘s Yo-Landi Vi$$er and Ninja. They force him to install the component and robot 22 wakes up as newly-conscious Chappie (addictively pronounced ‘tzchehppi’).
What ensues is a mish-mash of competing themes and stories. You have the standard disgruntled, sore loser bad guy (Vincent) stopping at nothing to crush the compassionate, naive good guy (Deon) with nefarious deeds, heart-breaking violence and some cool special effects. You have the ‘when does a robot become the same as a human’ trope explored through the clearly human qualities of Chappie and the sad, sad treatment of him by those who either want to exploit him or crush him. You have the ‘bad guys who really aren’t that bad’ cliché as we get to know Ninja and Yo-Landi and Chappie starts calling them mum and dad.
What we don’t get is a coherent sub-text that seems to be saying anything particular about South African society post-apartheid. Pretty much all characters seem white, although the current population of South Africa is only around 9% white. There are two female characters and they don’t ever meet. We get to experience some excellent zef culture and music via proponents Yo-Landi and Ninja. Zef is a white, lower-middle class sub-culture that embraces trashiness. Yo-Landi says “It’s associated with people who “soop” their cars up and rock gold and shit. Zef is, you’re poor but you’re fancy. You’re poor but you’re sexy, you’ve got style.” (source) Yo-Landi with her signature undercut, mullet with a micro-fringe haircut and neon, trash-culture clothes endearingly exemplifies the style.This gives a glimmer of what Chappie might be trying to say. An article by Anton Krueger suggests that zef is a parody of white Afrikaner culture and seeks to reframe white identity post-apartheid by embracing “everything the Afrikaner identity had been protected from in the past, including poverty and the “impurity” of other races.” (source) In this light, it could be that Chappie himself is that fragile identity, only nurtured and given the chance to exist by those who reject well-meaning but weak altruism (Deon), military greed (Vincent), capitalist heartlessness (Michelle) and violent, patriarchal violence (every other gang member). Maybe.
What do you think? Comment below, I’d love to hear some personal insight into South African political and social culture.
Available on DVD and iTunes.