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[Movie] Chappie

Found this review on my thumb drive and realized that I’d never sent it anywhere or put it on my blog. So here you go, for what it’s worth. Notably less profane than my normal review style because I originally wasn’t writing it for myself.

Note: For the purposes of this review, the character Chappie will be referred to as it in the sense of being a non-human person with no intrinsic or self-identified gender, and additionally no clearly preferred pronouns. (More on the gender question later.) For this case, I beg your indulgence in not reading it as innately dehumanizing or insulting, as is often the case when applied to human persons.

Also, spoilers. Sorry, but the ending is what makes the movie worth talking about.

Much maligned by reviewers, Chappie has perhaps been judged more harshly than it deserves. It’s an incredibly imperfect film about artificial intelligence, consciousness, humanity, and family, but quietly dares to ask much larger questions than Neill Blomkamp’s previous film, Elysium.

Chappie has been compared most often to Short Circuit, a 1986 science fiction comedy movie. The basic concept is similar: robot originally intended for more martial uses gains self awareness, grapples with questions of life and death, and fights to survive against humans that are intent upon seeing to its destruction. And Chappie is pretty funny at times, though arguably not as funny as Short Circuit. But while the bones of the plot are the same, right down to the rather hyper-masculine, military-obsessed antagonist who wants to destroy the robot, the details are in many ways significantly different.

Chappie takes place in a near-future Johannesburg, where police forces have become so overwhelmed they’ve turned to buying gun-wielding, humanoid robots from a corporation called Tetravaal. Engineer Deon (Dev Patel) has designed the police robots, while his jealous rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman) pushes his expensive and far more militarized MOOSE robot. Deon is obsessed with creating true AI, though he receives no support from Tetravaal to do so. Frustrated, he steals a robot scheduled for destruction, intent on loading his AI program onto it as a test. Before he can accomplish this however, he is kidnapped by three criminals by the names of Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika. They owe a gangster named Hippo twenty million dollars, and in order to pay him back need to hijack and armored car, a heist they believe beyond their ability unless they can force Deon to somehow remotely switch the police robots off. Deon insists he’s incapable of doing that, and instead convinces them to let him put the robot he stole together, loads on the AI program, and then Chappie is born. Due to the nature of Deon’s program, the fledgling AI starts out like a child, learning from its surroundings. The criminal gang refuses to let Deon take Chappie with him or stay, and undertake Chappie’s education themselves with only minor moral input from its creator. Yolandi eagerly takes on the role as Chappie’s mother, while Amerika acts more as an older brother and Ninja as an abusive father figure. As another wrinkle, the reason the robot was originally scheduled for destruction was that its battery had fused to the chassis, and will provide only five more days of power, thus giving Chappie a very set life expectancy. Using Chappie’s fear of death against it, Ninja ultimately convinces Chappie to help them perform the heist and trick it into doing violence with the lie that sticking a knife in someone feels good to that person, and will just make them go to sleep.

After the heist, Chappie realizes that Ninja’s promises that money would save its life were a lie, and hatches a new plan to survive. Using a neural input helmet intended to let humans remotely pilot the MOOSE, it has found a way to back up its own consciousness digitally and save it. Vincent has all the while been attempting to convince the head of Tetravaal (Signourney Weaver) to let the MOOSE loose. He uses a virus to take all of the police robots off line and then sends the MOOSE out to track down and attempt to destroy Chappie. He succeeds in killing Amerika and Yolandi, and grievously wounding Deon before Chappie and Ninja destroy the MOOSE. Chappie takes Deon back to the Tetravaal plant, exacts a non-lethal but thoroughly violent revenge on Vincent, and uses the neural input helmet to transfer the dying Deon’s consciousness into a police robot test unit. Thus saved, Deon quickly transfers Chappie into another nearby robot and then escapes.

While the setup for the plot is very ham-handed—why doesn’t Deon just lie to the criminals? how on Earth is the CEO of Tetravaal so completely short-sighted about the possibilities of true AI? why can’t they just put Chappie’s head on a different robot body? and so on—once the pieces have all been shoved to their necessary positions on the board and Chappie created, the rest unfolds well enough. Outside of Chappie, most of the characters suffer from a paucity of development, with Deon and Vincent particularly underserved. Vincent is a caricature of an antagonist; while South African, he feels like a sketched out model of toxic American masculinity, from his Christianity to his bullying to the fact that he swaggers around with a pistol on his belt. (I do not know enough about South African culture to speak to the accuracy of this caricature in that context.) At one point he even threatens Deon with the pistol, tackling him onto his desk and pressing the barrel against his cheek, and then claims that this assault was only a “joke.” Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika (the members of the group Die Antwoord) are as far as I can tell playing caricatures of themselves, and aren’t particularly interesting for it. But the star of the movie is Chappie, and we see its progress from infancy to rebellious teenager-hood over the course of the movie.

Chappie as a character is one that a viewer will either find exceptionally endearing or extremely annoying. Well-voiced and acted in a sort of “poor-man’s motion capture” by Sharlto Copley, Chappie speaks with distinctive vocal quirks, and displays the full range of emotions one would expect from a sentient being using tone, body language, and a set of lights that stand in for eyes. The robot is lied to constantly by the humans around it, caught in a tug-of-war between Deon’s egotistical self-righteousness and Ninja’s self-conscious, bullying swagger. Much of the character’s development is seen in painful realization after realization of the lies it has been told, the cruelty and inhumanity of others, and of its own impending death. Chappie’s own emotional core is provided mostly by the inconsistently characterized Yolandi, who on one hand authors Deon’s kidnapping and is perfectly happy threatening to kill him, and on the other reads Chappie bedtime stories and assures it that it is loved despite all emotional crises. It’s the title character’s inner journey that ultimately makes the film and its incredibly rough setup worth viewing at all.

The pay-off for Chappie comes when, wanting to survive, Chappie develops a way to save its consciousness digitally. Considering the earlier discussions that Chappie has with Yolandi about the existence of souls, this is actually a bold statement to be made by writer/director Blomkamp in a time when mind-body dualism is still a hotly debated topic. And it becomes even more pointed, considering Chappie’s greatest opponent, Vincent, despises AI as soulless. That Blomkamp supposes a world in which a sentient robot is able to record the consciousness of a dying human and copy it into a robot body as the dramatic conclusion to his film deserves far more attention than it has received, no matter how much of a hot mess the first two-thirds of the movie may be. Following the ending plot stinger, he’s offering us a fictional world in which humans stand on the precipice of functional immortality, and that is heady stuff.

Another worthwhile and largely ignored question in the film—and in this case, one the director likely wasn’t so interested in asking—has to do with the question of Chappie’s gender. Robots, if sentient, are arguably beings without latent gender, wholly asexual. The robots in the film are nominally coded as male—they’re blue because they’re police robots, they have voices that sound male. But when Chappie is awakened to sentience, there is not anything obviously in its behavior that is indicative of one gender or another—it is wholly childlike. Yet immediately, a male gender is assigned to the robot by all of humans around it, including Deon. Is Deon’s knee-jerk identification of Chappie as male due to an urge to see himself in his creation, an assumption of male as a default gender, or something else? It’s a question worth asking, and one the movie never gets around to, which seems a shame.

The identification of Chappie’s gender comes not from within the character, but is imposed from without by observers who seem in general agreement that it is male, judged by behavior that is at that time purely reactive and not at all coded in one direction or another. The infant personality in the robot is skittish and exceptionally curious, and eager to please. Later we see Chappie play with the items given to it by Deon, one of which is a Barbie-esque doll that it actually styles to look like Yolandi—and then act afraid upon being caught doing so by Ninja. Is this because Chappie believes itself to be male in some way and knows it ought not play with dolls, or far more likely because Ninja has given it ample reason to fear him in general?

In fact, all of Chappie’s more masculine-coded behaviors and ways of speaking are specifically taught to it by Ninja and Amerika in order for it to seem “tougher” and convince it to be more willing to engage in violence and intimidation. With the sole exception of Deon as the token, thoughtful nerd, masculinity in this movie is generally presented as bullying and violent. And while Chappie is willing to engage in the swaggering, arguably to convince Ninja to like it the way Yolandi and Amerika do, the only way it is compelled to actually act intimidating or violent is with lies that use its desire to please its perceived parents against it. In the same way, any apparent acceptance of assigned gender on Chappie’s part seems to come entirely from a desire to please rather than out of inherent identification. Chappie’s final, knowing acceptance of violence when it enacts its revenge upon Vincent is particularly notable on these grounds.

There is an unexpected amount of meat to be found on the bones of a movie too easily dismissed in light of a comedic predecessor. Chappie is worth watching for that reason, if you can handle wading through the repetitive antics of the human caricatures—and deal with the frustration over what could have been.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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