Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel
Year Released: 2015
Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley do it right once again in their latest outing, Chappie. With Johannesburg, South Africa once again the setting of a near-future morality tale, we see a now familiar Joburg serving as the epicentre for a global reformation. Only this time it isn’t the presence of aliens from beyond our solar system, it is a mechanized police force built in our own backyard. A highly successful police force, to be sure. Of course, as will happen with any good anthropomorphic robotic system, we are one facet of humanity away from seeing a force of “good” turned to evil.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
In his script writing, Blomkamp has already demonstrated his talent and need to tell a humanistic tale hidden between cutting edge computer generated characters and their human counterparts. The tendency to portray almost archetypal characters that the viewer can easily relate to, interacting with concepts given digital, photo-realistic form. In District 9 that was done with “prawns”, extraterrestrial creatures, that simply wanted to coexist with their new neighbors but were instead treated as “aliens” and immediately ghettoized. Which created a familiar paradigm, one that we have seen too many times here on Earth (and was designed to recall apartheid in the area). In Elysium it was a utopia that only the wealthy had access to, an unobtainable goal for the working class, commentary on the division of economic classes around the world. In Chappie, we revisit the idea of physical bodies marking us as different, but go beyond that to the simplistic concept of being a child and how easily we can shape the reality of our “creations”.
The Newsroom’s Dev Patel plays lead engineer for Tetravaal’s robotic Scout program (he not only seems to be the software engineer but possibly the designer of the physical robot itself, that isn’t made perfectly clear), Deon. After the success of his work program, Deon focuses his attention of creating true Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Something that he manages to do with the assistance of some Redbull delivered by his robotic live-in assistant at 6 in the morning. Of course the responsible thing to do is ask your boss to use a broken robot to test the A.I. on, right? Well, he is quickly shot down and resolves to steal Scout 22 (decommissioned earlier in the movie due to an RPG detonating on impact with its chest). Before he can get the broken robot home though, he is high-jacked by some Joburg gangsters looking to remotely shutdown the entire robotic police force. Hilarious hi-jinks ensue from there.
Using his A.I. program, Deon gives life to Scout 22. So that as soon as he is brought online, we see the former super-cop turned into a cowering child, afraid of loud noises and people speaking sounds that he does not understand. His ability to learn is accelerated though, and in no time he is learning words, mimicking those around him and developing an ethical code that carries him through the rest of the movie. As you can imagine, the experience has moments of great humor and moments of devious opportunistic abuse. Which is how it works, the process of an infant child growing into an individual person; it involves lessons learned through comical mistakes as well as manipulation by those that mean well and those that mean ill. This is where we learn to love Chappie, unmistakenly voiced by Sharlto Copley, the robot boy that wants nothing more than to live.
Human greed and violence work to prevent Chappie, Deon and the Joburg gangsters from reaching their goals. Violence erupts and before you can figure out where Deon’s odd need for Chappie to follow his dreams comes from, Hugh Jackman’s oddly Christian character, Vincent Moore, gets the okay to activate his human piloted, drone MOOSE robot. Chappie has already developed the program to digitize the human consciousness at this point; using the combined processing power of a dozen Playstation 4s he was able to transfer his own intelligence into a laptop and has found the only way to ensure that he gets to live.
The movie is complex when you consider the underlying theme and technology needed to accomplish what is done. There are holes of course, Chappie develops the code to transfer human intelligence in a matter of hours yet demonstrates no insight into the people around him or his own precarious situation and Deon has a lot of free reign in Tetravaal for such a valuable and essential piece of their business, but the movie can easily be enjoyed without delving too deep into those aspects of it. The thing that bugged me the most was Deon’s paternal instinct for something that he had very limited time with, he is an engineer and the code didn’t reside in Chappie alone.
I read a review of the movie that said Neill Blomkamp had “failed, but at least he failed upward” with Chappie. I disagree, Blomkamp continues to mix humor with action in a sci-fi movie while exploring deep concepts in ways that are easily relatable and provoke conversation about what it is to be human. I look forward to his next original film.