Why Cast Die Antwoord in “Chappie”? What is Zef? Was All the Obvious Product Placement Good or Bad?
Director Neill Blomkamp counts himself a fan of Die Antwoord, the south-African rap/rave group, so much that he cast them as leads in Chappie (2015). They’re not seasoned actors and they don’t make for very likable characters, but they’re overwhelmingly present in the film. What they do is ensure that nobody will take Chappie very seriously, as their over-animated, one-dimensional personas, accompanied by their odd physical looks and brightly-colored everything help color the film into a hot action/sci-fi mess.
Musicians starring in films isn’t a new phenomenon, and sometimes they prove to be decent actors. Die Antwoord’s Yolandi and Ninja may have been able to do more with their characters if the script had demanded it, but unfortunately it didn’t. That aside, what is unique about Chappie is that Yolandi and Ninja go by those names in the film, just as they do in real life. They wear Die Antwoord shirts with each others’ faces on them. Several of their songs are used for the film’s soundtrack. And while it all sort of fits into this weird, hybrid, colorful world that Blomkamp has created in Chappie, it’s plain old-fashioned weird. Why is all this obvious self-promotion here?
The duo is a very outspoken, artistic, unique visual group. Knowing that and seeing all the obvious product placement throughout the film makes Chappie seem like a 2-hour long Die Antwoord music video. Whether that’s good or bad is a side point, and a matter of opinion - but it’s probably not what people expected to see.
Die Antwoord’s presence also turns into stuff like “ZEF” being written on Chappie’s back.
Zef is a South African counterculture movement popularized by Die Antwoord’s music. It essentially means “common,” and as Yolandi has described it, “It’s associated with people who soup 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.”
Does that have any real relevance to Chappie? Not really. Chappie is a super expensive robot policeman thing.
That said, Die Antwoord’s presence in the film almost breaks the fourth wall with the thin veil separating their musical and film ideograms, and they twist the film into a cult angle of absurdity that makes the film fun. Chappie is nothing if not entertaining, and the subtext is there for those who want to examine it; the film doesn’t require it. Viewing the film without taking it too seriously, Die Antwoord end up being pretty useful in making the film entertaining on a basic level.