Neil Blomkamp’s latest take on socio-economics in the less than reputable urban areas of South Africa is a boiling gumbo of social problems, technological perils, and corruption of the mind that is laced in some of the most infecting visual style you’ll see at the theaters this early in the year.
The future is bright for a director as talented as Blomkamp is, but the future within his films is one painted in a darker shade. A quasi-post-apocalyptic coating where government officials and police are in a constant war with individuals they deem to be dangerous to society. Whether they are the aliens of District 9, the poor classes of Elysium or here in Chappie, simply rough street gangs and a peculiar robot that gains consciousness through a programming code, the targets of law enforcement in Blomkamp films are given a multi-dimensional feel that they don’t get when covered by the news media.
There is a constant “us vs. them” feel to Blomkamp’s film which is all a little too relate-able for comfort. We don’t see this in the U.S. just in terms of cops and criminals, but also in terms of humans and the exponentially skyrocketing technological advancement happening in companies in Silicon Valley. Ray Kurtzweil has expressed his fear and concern over artificial intelligence many times before. In the same breath, the rise of a militant police system and the increasing violence among disenfranchised communities such as those in Ferguson, Missouri have been near the center of media for the past several months. Blomkamp manages to combine these two elements into a striking individualistic message in which the central character is a robot.
Chappie is a computer program uploaded into one of engineering firm Tetravaal’s prototype robot police officers. The creator of the robots, the nerdy engineer Deon (Dev Patel), believes that he has stumbled upon a program which can give artificial life to one of his creations… that a robot will be capable of thinking, feeling, evolving, and learning the way a human being does. He takes a rejected model from the trash bin and decides to test his program on it. Like a newborn baby, Chappie comes into consciousness scared and uneasy about his surroundings. A group of rag-tag gangsters named Ninja, Yolandi, and America (yes, one of the character’s names is “America”) plan to use Chappie as an accomplice to commit crimes and come at odds with Deon, who wants Chappie to develop into a productive citizen in society. The fears over Chappie that would result in his alienation from human society come from two directions, both of which, as stated earlier, are prevalent fears in American society today.
One is of machine intelligence, where Chappie’s ability to develop cognitively like a human child, through reading books, understanding grammar, fine-tuning his motor skills and mimicking his role-models erases the line between life and artificiality. We start to become concerned of the idea of “playing God”, giving birth to a new “species” of life, one which in all respects, is not dictated by biology and the limitations of mother nature and thus, not subject to evolution. Machines are a species which could potentially live forever. To give them thought like an organism of our intelligence would render our race obsolete, and if they can develop thought past us, we suddenly become the inferior species. The moral complications of this are staggering and are rushed to the forefront of discussion when, during the film, Chappie begins to exhibit existential thought. The human reaction to something like this happening would be similar to the combination of fascination and terrifying fear exhibited when Alex the Grey Parrot, during a color classification experiment asked the question “What color am I?”, the first time any non-human creature was ever recorded as asking a question about itself. Chappie ponders the difference between his body and his consciousness when Yolandi, who he affectionately refers to as “mommy”, explains to him that his mechanical body and his wires are not what makes him him. He also considers uploading his consciousness as a simulation program and using it to create more “Chappies”. I think I just heard Ray Kurzweil have a heart attack. There haven’t yet been known cases of computer programs being able to create better versions of themselves, but it are not far from being a reality. What happens when biology is thrown out the window? Where to humans turn?
While artificial intelligence is something that is a distant dear, one which people are already taking measures to monitor, the second prevalent fear, which is a reality today, is one of corruption of the mind by upbringing and surrounding. The psychology of individuals and their decision-making and view of society is heavily influenced by where and how they grew up. Chappie’s alienation not only stems from him being a different species, but also by being molded as an enemy of the state. While Chappie’s creator Deon is stuck juggling his work and the mean-spirited taunts and threats from his archrival engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), Chappie is raised primarily by his father figure, Ninja, a fly-off-the-handle small-time thug who emotionally manipulates Chappie into committing crimes for him. Ninja abandons Chappie amidst a gang of violent thugs to teach Chappie “the cruelty of the world”. We feel the same sort of mixed emotions over Ninja as we do with any intensely hard-going father figure, one minute he cares, the next minute he couldn’t give less of a shit. Chappie’s upbringing as a thug, being taught to walk and shoot automatic weapons the way Ninja does, and going on car-stealing sprees with Ninja and America, shapes Chappie into a criminal himself. It comes at a price for Deon, who created Chappie as a Tetravaal prototype to help with South Africa’s police force… Chappie, once a cop, has now, through a consciousness program, developed into hard-lined thug. We ask the question in America all the time. The disenfranchised communities, particularly urban black communities, produce a lot of criminals, gang-bangers, and drug-addicts. To dismiss the environment in which they grew up in as an influence would be to do the individuals a disservice. The moment they start to learn and think, they start to pick up the activities of other individuals who influence them. Blomkamp reveals, through Chappie’s development from a toddler to an advanced adult program, that he is wildly susceptible to influence from his surroundings. The psychology of Chappie is coded on its own from what he observes through his father figure, Ninja. It’s a socio-economic problem which affects the human mind in many ways, and to reverse it is extremely difficult.
I can’t argue that Chappie, in terms of its overarching storyline is similar to many other films where fear becomes the key ingredient in misunderstanding between humans and another “species” (particularly The Planet of the Apes series). There is the perennial good guy, Deon, who creates Chappie and wants him to grow up into a productive member of society, the anti-heros Ninja, Yolandi, and America who don’t know better than to teach Chappie about their lives as criminals, and the perennial bad guy Vincent who is a failed engineer who seeks to get revenge and eventually murder both Deon and his creation. The familiarity of the story is no reason to dismiss Chappie as derivative. Interesting approaches to discussing common problems is what makes Blomkamp’s films intriguing, and his visual flair is what makes it exciting. Kinetic cameras and vivid color schemes paint Blomkamp’s darkly futuristic South Africa as a frenetic and lively danger-zone which fits perfectly with its socio-economic and technological discourse. Overall, we have the blessing of seeing and action movie that is less robotic and more human… one which isn’t only dictated by technical aspects and computer simulated schemes, but which also has a heart and a mind. Like Chappie himself, Blomkamp’s film is deeper than the mechanical action genre is known to be and for that reason, it’s worth listening to.