Well, at least Neill Blomkamp made it to the top of the U.S. box office this weekend. Yet few are cheering the latest from the critically acclaimed South African director. “Chappie” may have hit No. 1, but that was with a relatively weak gross of $13.3 million, and the action-adventure drama about an artifically intelligent robot cop has largely been panned by critics.
Will Blomkamp’s stars take the blame? No, not Hugh Jackman and Dev Patel, the recognizable names from the trailer. We mean the two non-actors at the center of the story — the rap duo known as Die Antwoord.
Filmmakers love to highlight their favorite bands with prime real estate in their movies’ most memorable scenes. Take Zach Braff deploying a Shins lullaby to woo Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or Mike Nichols setting a quirky mood in “The Graduate” with Simon & Garfunkel. Sofia Coppola used the French band Phoenix in several movies — before marrying lead singer Thomas Mars.
The truly smitten filmmakers sometimes go so far as to cast their favorite rock stars in their movies — among them, Tom Waits, Madonna, David Bowie, Dwight Yoakum, Queen Latifah, Eddie Vedder, Tim McGraw who all tried the big screen to varying levels of success. The latest filmmaker to try is Blomkamp — and oh, did he ever try to make it work. He recruited the members of South African group Die Antwoord for “Chappie.” Not in bit parts, but two leading roles.
If you aren’t familiar with the group, meet Ninja and Yolandi Visser. (The band also features DJ Hi-Tek, who isn’t in the movie.)
Ninja prefers to wear boxers — just boxers — and the mulleted Visser (or sometimes Vi$$er) opts usually for an oversized T-shirt. They’re one-article-of-clothing types. Their music falls in the rave-rap category. Visser can hit the high notes and she uses her ethereal voice to spew hard-core lyrics while Ninja raps over electronic beats reminiscent of the Prodigy. Their videos are designed to shock — and not appropriate to embed here, though you can watch the one for “I Fink U Freeky” among others on YouTube — with Visser letting rats crawl all over her and Ninja using a snake as a scarf. Here they are on Letterman. Pretty tame by comparison, and Ninja must be sweating buckets under all those clothes.
Most recently, they’ve been in the news because they called Drake various epithets on Instagram.
According to Wired, Blomkamp was listening to Die Antwoord’s music while making his previous movie, 2013’s “Elysium,” and a vision of “Chappie” began to emerge. The movie takes place in a dystopian Johannesburg where crime is out of control and the police have begun recruiting robots to help with raids. Deon (Patel) designed the robots and thinks he can take them to the next level by transforming them into sentient beings who can paint and write poetry. His boss, played by Sigourney Weaver, doesn’t understand why she would want her killing machines to be able to write poetry. So Deon secretly sneaks a robot out of the factory to experiment, and just then he’s held up by a trio of thieves, played by Ninja, Visser and Jose Pablo Cantillo. The three thugs agree to let Deon live in exchange for his A.I. creation. Visser names him Chappie, and even though he’s born a blank slate, he quickly becomes, essentially, a big, dangerous kid that loves “He-Man” cartoons, throwing ninja stars and carjacking confused South Africans.
“Chappie” is Blomkamp’s third feature. His first, 2009’s “District 9,” was a surprise success. It was an action movie, but a smart one, about an alien race in South Africa that is forced to live in a slum. The parallels to apartheid were clear, and the movie was well-crafted, earning the director good reviews and nice box office returns.
He followed that with another politically-minded sci-fi thriller, the much-anticipated dud “Elysium.” Even the presence of Matt Damon couldn’t save a mess of a movie about haves and have-nots in which the one-percenters live on a pristine space station while the rest of mankind is relegated to a wasteland known as Earth.
Blomkamp has already been recruited to do an “Alien” sequel, so maybe the success or failure of “Chappie” isn’t all that important. Still, there’s curiosity: Will this movie be a return to form or is the director going to pull a Shyamalan and make one buzzy movie followed by inconsequential or downright awful ones?
The stress wasn’t enough to get Blomkamp to hire professional actors and (spoiler!) Ninja and Visser are really bad in the movie. Especially Ninja. They appear to be playing themselves (or at least their musical selves): Visser still cuddles with rats, and Ninja still swaggers around throwing things and dropping f-bombs in creative ways. Subtlety isn’t their strong suit in song or performance, and their delivery is so ungainly, a viewer has no chance of ever getting absorbed into the world the film tries to create.
Strangely — or maybe wisely — the pair barely appears in the trailer even though most of the movie focuses on them and their relationship with the robot. Visser shows up around the one-minute mark of the short preview, and Ninja doesn’t pop up until close to the end of the clip, telling Chappie, “you must fight.”
The duo’s on-set attitude was as bad as their acting, at least according to co-star Brandon Auret. During an interview with South Africa’s News24, he insisted he wouldn’t comment on his contentious relationship with the musicians. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he maintained, before going on to talk about it.
“I don’t care much for [Ninja], I don’t care much for his band, I don’t care much for anything that he does,” Auret said. “When somebody comes and feels that they have the right to tell you how to do your job, when they have no right to talk to me about acting, yeah, it became an issue.”
Visser and Ninja aren’t the only problems with the movie, but they are two of the biggies. If there’s a moral here, it’s that even auteurs need to rein in their inner fan-boys sometimes. Ninja and Visser are arguably talented (at least to their many fans), but not everyone can be a multi-hyphenate. Even Taylor Swift has her limits. Let’s hope that Blomkamp does a better job of casting his “Alien” follow-up.
This post has been updated.