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Short Circuit, Die Antwoord, Robocop and apartheid: The influences behind Chappie

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Chappie is an upcoming film from Neill Blomkamp, the director who was once attached to the Halo franchise but has since gone on to direct the excellent District 9, and the not-so-excellent Elysium.

Chappie seems to come from a mishmash of influences, and it's possible you may have missed a few, so let's take a journey together.

First, watch the trailer for that movie, because it's an interesting-looking take on artificial intelligence and the question of what is or isn't alive.

If you have a few minutes, compare that with the first trailer, which set a very different tone of the film. So we don't really know what the actual movie will be like, since the executives can use different combinations of footage combined with music and editing tricks to sell us on the idea that it's basically anything. You've probably seen the trailers that make The Shining look like a romantic comedy if you want to see an extreme example.

But I digress. The most immediate influence from what we've seen has to be Short Circuit, the 1986 film about a military robot who was struck by lightning and became self-aware. If you haven't watched it, you should catch up! It's a pretty great movie, and spawned a number of annoying catchphrases.

OK, that's a good place to start, but let's look at where Blomkamp comes from in terms of filmmaking. His first short was called "Alive in Joburg," and it dealt with the idea of refugee aliens in a South African shanty town.

Alive In Joburg - Neill Blomkamp from Spy Films on Vimeo.

The short provides another way to discuss apartheid, and there's a sly trick involved in the dialog: Many of the individuals interviewed for the film weren't reading from a script, and they weren't talking about aliens.

"I was asking black South Africans about black Nigerians and Zimbabweans. That's actually where the idea came from was there are aliens living in South Africa," Neil Blomkamp told io9. "I asked 'What do you feel about Zimbabwean Africans living here?' And those answers — they weren't actors, those are real answers..."

If you watch the Chappie trailer again you may notice a few slightly odd-looking individuals in the film, and this is one of the more interesting bits of casting in a mainstream film. The man and woman are Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er, two thirds of the South African rap group DIe Antwoord, which is Afrikaans for "The Answer."

Each of their music videos also works as its own short film, but I'm going to warn you they are also incredibly unsafe for work. I'm a Die Antwoord fan myself, but I'll be the first to admit it's something of an acquired taste.

OK, one more, just in case that wasn't enough.

You can't bring up Die Antwoord without dealing with the endless but rather interesting argument about how much of what they do is "real" and how much of it is performative.

The music belongs to a genre and lifestyle called "Zef," which is described in the following way in Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies:

It involves a way of presenting a persona in a purposefully degrading way, exaggerating one's appearance and mannerisms as low class, ill bred, and boorish. I would like to consider the recent popularity of "Zef" and examine its connection specifically to popular Afrikaans folk rock culture, a lineage of white poverty, and the feeling of disgrace experienced by many white Afrikaners after the end of apartheid.

This is from a paper called "Zef/Poor White Kitsch Chique: Die Antwoord's Comedy of Degradation." What's important is that both Die Antwood and Neill Blomkamp see the world through South African eyes. The animal pulled from the vagina of the faux-Lady Gaga in the above video is a "Parktown Prawn," a type of cricket commonly found in South Africa. If you remember your District 9, "prawn" was a slang term for the alien refugees.

But that's only a part of this. Chappie is a robot that was designed for law enforcement, which reminds you of who exactly?

The original, 1987 Robocop dealt with the issues of turning a man into a machine. The 2014 update was much more concerned about drone warfare, but it looks like many of these themes are going to be explored in Chappie in some way or another.

What's important is that Chappie is going to address topics that have been done to death in science fiction and cinema from a different point of view than we're used to seeing in American cinema. The film's premise isn't original, and the focus on Hugh Jackman in the latest trailer isn't surprising, but Blomkamp is a unique voice in Hollywood, and Die Antwoord is an inspired bit of casting. Keep in mind that not only did Blomkamp did a decent amount of work on the Halo film before that project was cancelled, his work on an unreleased Aliens movie was also released.

Chappie is coming to theaters on March 6 of this year.

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