The cartoon that dreamed it was serious
Neill Blomkamp
Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Die Antwoord
The Setup: 
Police robot is given artifical intelligence, falls in with hoodlums.

So I liked District 9 well enough, and hated Elysium, and the lack of clear plot in the trailers, the sentimentality seeping from the trailers, and then all the early negative reviews made me expect the worst from this film. But I was weirdly into seeing it... I wanted to hatewatch it. To sit there smirkingly satisfied with every bad element of it. But then a funny thing happened… it has several bad elements to be sure, but once I realized it was bad, I started to enjoy it. I got into its weird, oddly-structured story, and by the time it goes full-on wacky at the end, I was quite into it, and walked out with a smile on my face! Here is my bizarre journey…

We open with TV footage telling us that a robot police force was introduced in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016, and have been working out well. First there was the Moose, this huge thing taken straight from the opening of Robocop which was developed by Hugh Jackman as Vincent, who has an unfortunate mullet but several fortune snug shirts and shorts, who will to control it via a helmet that transmits his thoughts. This was passed over by his corporation in favor of the humanoid robots made by Deon, played by Dev Patel, which are autonomous, and were put into use. The company is run by Sigourney Weaver as Michelle. Anyway, the dichotomy is set up between robots that are drones run by a human, or robots that are pure programming… and we haven’t even gotten to artificial intelligence yet.

Meanwhile, a tattooed, shirtless muscle goon wants his 20 million from skinny thug Ninja, who goes and reports the news to Yolandi, who looks and speaks like the heroine of The Dark Crystal dressed up as Lady Gaga. They both comprise the real-life rap duo Die Antwoord, and they often wear clothes promoting their band in the film. My favorite Yolandi quote from the beginning was “Robots are like machines, right?” Her idea is to kidnap a programmer, get a cop robot, and have him program it to work for them. Meanwhile, a damaged robot is given a few new spare parts—including an orange ear, so we can identify him throughout the film—sent out into battle [a ridiculously overblown action scene] and soon irreparably damaged by a shell to the chest. In here is a kind of hilarious slo-mo shot of the robot firing a rifle with a spent shell whizzing out of his gun, a recreation of a shot we’ve seen in countless action films.

Advertising for Red Bull is delivered as Deon asks for one by name, then it is implied that his consumption of it leads directly to his creation of artificial intelligence. He takes it to Michelle, who needs to reject it in order for the plot to move forward… and therefore we are to believe that the head of this robotics company laughs off the biggest, world-changing advance in robotics and human history, because of “all the red tape and paperwork.” It’s ludicrous touches like this at the beginning that got this movie moved into the “bad” category quickly. Anyway, so Deon steals the decommissioned robot, and is promptly kidnapped by the thugs, where he activates the robot [I thought it was irreparably damaged?] and installs artificial intelligence. He sure is having an eventful day! He warns then that the robot will have to be taught everything, like a child. Oh, and it only has five days to live, because of a battery that can’t be changed. Can you believe that? I didn’t either.

So the movie goes into a little interlude where Ninja teaches Chappie how to shoot a gun, sideways, naturally, and many other aspects of being a hip-hop gangsta thug. This goes on for longer throughout the movie than you think it should, and involves spending much more time with these not-wholly-likable characters than maybe most of us want. Meanwhile, Vincent knows Deon is up to something [and he is, on a deep level, (unrealistically) horrified by artificial intelligence], so he slams Deon down on his desk in a crowded work office, then puts his gun to Deon’s head… right in the middle of the cube farm! This is around when I just completely gave up on this film in terms of it being “good.” The situations and characters are all too ridiculous and overblown to take seriously. And, having given up on it… this is when I started to enjoy it.

In the first unexpected sequence, Ninja gets angry that Chappie isn’t violent enough, takes him out and abandons him in the gang-controlled outskirts of town, presumably to die. The thugs beat him and set him on fire, but he escapes. He is caught by Vincent, who cuts off his arm, but he again escapes. Vincent also takes a chip from him which proves to be of great importance, but which I could never understand the significance of. Then he goes back to Ninja and Yolandi, who give him another arm [it’s THAT easy! From spare parts you have at home!], and continue to train him to be a criminal. Soon they paint Chappie with gang “tattoos” and give him a bunch of gold chains to wear. He helps them steal a bunch of cars.

So the movie is winning goodwill from me because I expected to be sitting there having lessons about humanity and how machines can be better people than some humans, and whether machines can have souls, and all that old banal shit, but instead I was sitting there like: “Where is this going? What is the point of this? Why are we spending any time at all with these characters? What’s the idea behind this movie?” which was all a much better feeling, as I expected to know exactly where we were headed and be dragged there begrudgingly, but instead, it was only getting weirder and wackier. And it hadn’t even gone full-plumb goofy yet!

Well, while Chappie was imprisoned, he stole a helmet that connects to the brain in order to control the Moose [Jackman’s Robocop robot]. The movie tries to float a doozy of a science goof in having the helmet, meant to connect to the human brain, supposedly function on Chappie, because Chappie has “consciousness.” Then Jackman uses the mystery chip he stole earlier to [somehow] cause the whole robotic police force to cease functioning, which causes crime to skyrocket, which obviously demonstrates the “need” for his Moose. Then Chappie is on television stealing cars and hurting a person, which shocks everyone because they were all convinced that these robots could not harm a human. So Jackman loads up the Moose to go kill Chappie. I mean, we KNEW those two were going to tangle, right?

So through some circumstance, the muscle goon comes to collect his money and Deon is also there along with Ninja and Dark Crystal Girl, and there follows the expected big fight. I liked the Moose, though… it it very menacing and can fly to its destination and land with a thud, producing genuine shock and awe. Jackson, at the controls, is hyperventilating with sadism in an extremely over-the-top way, but by now it’s apparent that this is just a cartoon that thinks it is making serious points. Eventually they destroy it, which you knew was coming, but not before it kills Dark Crystal Girl! And guess what else? You remember Chappie’s totally arbitrary battery that cannot be replaced for reasons of creating script conflict and raising “hard-hitting” questions? Well, it’s running out RIGHT NOW. I spared you mention of Chappie’s earlier whole existential conflict [“Why you make Chappie to die?”] because… I’m just a good guy like that.

Now here comes the very ending, so if you don’t want to know… Deon has been shot, but he gets Chappie back to the lab, where he beats the shit out of Jackman, but not enough to really be satisfying. Anyway, you remember that helmet that is meant to receive human brainwaves can SOMEHOW, through the sheer will of screenwriting MAGIC, able to also receive robot “brainwaves?” Well, they just pop Chappie’s consciousness into another robot! That apparently doesn’t have the arbitrary battery problem, which only makes the arbitrary battery problem… seem even more arbitrary. Then! As if things weren’t wacky enough—they upload DEON’S consciousness into a robot! This was the one step over the line that was SO wacky it made me really like the movie. Deon seems to have NO issues or reflections on the fact that he is now a robot. Some life changes just go down smooth!

In an epilogue, turns out Chappie put Yolandi’s consciousness on a thumb drive [yup, your consciousness fits on a thumb drive!] and they’re going to put HER in a robot… while you’re like “Ugh, HER?!?!” but I guess they like her or something. So they’re just going to be a happy robot family. And we find out that the robot policing program has been dropped… even though nothing in the film has demonstrated that it can’t work, or why it was a problem.

So as I’m recounting all this, I’m thinking: “Holy shit! That is CRAP!” and it so, so is, but it’s so crazy and off-the-wall that I totally enjoyed sitting there. Neill Blomkamp is 36 years old and apparently thinks he has some pretty serious ideas! Which is actually kind of charming in its own way. District 9 at least had newness on its side, but Elysium, with its “rich people = BAD and poor people = GOOD” simplicity, was offensive and stupid and just plain not a good movie. I read an interview with Blomkamp where he took the blame for Elysium, saying he got so caught up in the central idea that the rest of the storytelling took a back seat and—well, I appreciate the honesty! But it seems that he still didn’t learn his lesson.

The film doesn’t establish why Johannesburg needs robot police... and you can’t just assume that we know. It is ludicrous that the head of a robotics company would dismiss the most important advance in robotics of all time. The idea of this one robot having a battery that can’t be changed is abundantly obvious as nothing but a script contrivance. The whole thing of Chappie winding up with these repulsive characters and learning to be an idiot gangsta—a serious miscalculation that mainstream audiences are going to like these people or not have serious troubles with how Chappie is turning out. Then the science doozy that the cap meant to connect to human heads works on Chappie? And that you can just upload human consciousness into robots? Then the implication that any of this somehow “proves” that a robot police force won’t work? When all we’ve seen thus far is it working perfectly, except one incident, clearly and obviously the exception?

It’s a bit like a first-year creative writing student’s work, so eager to throw in so many ideas that he hasn’t thought through how they work, doesn’t think they need to really be supported, and thinks just throwing them out there is enough. And in that way… it’s kind of charming! You even get the sense that Die Antwoord is here because he really, REALLY wanted to hang out with his favorite band! So as serious science fiction, or passable science fiction and decent entertainment, it’s pretty much a total bust. But once you accept it as a bad movie, it can be a surprisingly enjoyable ride.

Should you watch it: 

Hey, it's your time.


I remember when D9 came out, and people said "it's good, but it kind of lurches between dialogue scenes and action scenes", and I thought "wow, that sounds exactly like playing a video game, where you shoot your way through a level and then there's some talking, I guess this is what movies will be like now that we have a generation of filmmakers who were raised on Halo".

And that's pretty much how this guy's movies have gone.

Rumour has it that District 9 was intended to be a Halo movie, but either the idea was scrapped and/or the license for the property fell through.