Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Chappie (2015)

Thus far, director Neil Blomkamp’s directing career has followed a predictable pattern.

He had his break-out, wildly imaginative first picture: District 9 (2009). 

Then he experienced a sophomore slump, the two-dimensional Elysium (2012). 

Now he comes roaring back with another imaginative and brawny science fiction vision, Chappie (2015), but critics and audiences still aren’t sold on him, or his world view, and the film has earned mixed reviews.

Next up for Blomkamp is Alien 5, wherein, presumably, he will re-connect with more mainstream tastes.  Blomkamp will thus be afforded the opportunity -- like Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World -- to revive a once-beloved but dormant franchise, and thereby showcase his ability to send it in fresh and challenging directions.

But Chappie seems the most undeserving of victims in this paradigm because it features more imagination, energy, and heart than most genre films produced during the Age of Superheroes and CGI, excepting, perhaps, the rebooted Planet of the Apes pictures (Rise [2011] and Dawn [2014]). 

Even when Chappie was released earlier this year, virtually all talk of it in the genre and mainstream press was centered on Sigourney Weaver and Alien 5, not the merits or virtues of the film itself.

Yet much like District 9, Chappie is wildly unfettered and anarchic in terms of its visual action. And unlike Elysium, it doesn’t preach about its world view. That world view is substantive and valuable, of course, but you can watch and enjoy the film without it feeling like a lecture on social justice.

Chappie commences, actually, as a metaphor for child-rearing, or parenting, but then, in an ambitious and unexpected turn detour, transforms into a meditation on the very nature of consciousness, of life itself.

In meaningful ways, the narrative concerns the ways that a child who knows love cannot only save or redeem his parents, but change the world too. 

Despite the film’s violence and dystopian imagery, there’s a strong element of hope underlining the often-violent Chappie. Too many science fiction films these days mindlessly accept the status quo, or cynically imagine that nothing will ever change, except for the worse. 

By contrast, Blomkamp’s Chappie reminds us that our everyday actions -- as parents and people -- can alter the shape of destiny, and make the world a better place for future generations. 

Perhaps that description sounds cheesy, or broad, but Chappie moves with such dynamic, determined energy that the audience doesn’t feel talked down to but rather invested -- emotionally and viscerally -- in the details of the story and character.

“He’s not stupid. He’s just a kid.”

In near-future Johannesburg, the tech company Tetravaal has created a robot police force to combat out-of-control crime.  That robot police force is safe from third-party hacking because it takes a special “guard key” to update robot programming.  That guard key is zealously guarded, available to a select few.

Inside the company, two designers report to Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver).

One, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) wishes to update the robot police, known as Scouts, with a form of artificial intelligence.  She denies him permission. 

The other man, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), desires to push his own civil control program, giant remote-controlled gun platforms called MOOSE.

Both men violate orders and proceed with their own agendas. Deon takes the guard key and a broken robot, Scout 22, giving it artificial intelligence, and therefore consciousness.

Moore hatches a plan to sabotage the scouts, and get MOOSE on the city streets.

But Deon’s robot, 22, is captured by a trio of small-time criminals, Ninja (Himself), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo).  These crooks intend to use the machine, renamed Chappie, in a heist.  They have no choice, really.  They owe a local warlord, Hippo (Brandon Auret) 20 million dollars, and he will kill them if they don’t pay up.

But something unusual happens between Chappie and the criminals. Yolandi begins to see -- as Deon does -- that Chappie is a child, and one who needs nurturing and teaching.  She teaches him about death and the soul, even as Ninja seeks to make him a “cool” gun-slinging force for destruction. 

Chappie must chart his own path, and that path is affected by a terrible discovery.  He is mortal, and will only live for a few more days…

“Anything you want to do in your life, you can do.”

It’s easy to gaze at Chappie and judge it the bastard child of several genre movie influences.

The giant MOOSE assault weapon looks uncomfortably like RoboCop’s (1987) ED-209, and Chappie’s child-like nature and human “soul” may recall, for some, elements of Short Circuit (1985). Chappie’s discovery of impending mortality might be seen, in a way, as an allusion to the replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Beyond those surface values, however, the film charts its own compelling and unique course, much like Chappie himself.

For instance, consider the development of the human characters.  The movie essentially positions two criminals, Ninja and Volandi, as parents, but instead of diagramming these characters in predictable, cookie-cutter ways, the movie actually allows them to grow, just as real parents would in the same situation. Yolandi takes to motherhood quicker and more successfully than Ninja takes to fatherhood, but even he gets there…after a fashion. 

Some of their arguments about their unusual child, Chappie, eerily echo real life conversations I’ve witnessed and participated in. 

How could you do this? He’s just a child!” Yolandi complains at one point, when Ninja pushes Chappie too far.

I didn’t know what would happen,” Ninja answers, defensively.

Ninja keeps making fathering mistakes, and there’s one scene, even, when he scolds his mechanical son for playing with dolls instead of guns. The idea is that Yolandi accepts Chappie without question, looking to nurture and care for him. Ninja, by contrast, wants the robot to grow up in his image: “cool” and a BMF.  At one point, he even gives him bling and spray-paint tats.

But, finally, after lies and set-backs, Ninja also accepts who Chappie is, and comes to love him on those terms. Yolandi helps him get there, but the capacity is inside him, as it is within all of us. Indeed, Ninja makes a valorous last act attempt to sacrifice himself for his family, though it goes terribly wrong. 

In that moment of selflessness, however, Ninja thinks of his own family and its well-being first, not about himself, what he wants, or how Chappie should “be.”

A more typical Hollywood film would not showcase such sympathy and humanity in the development of Ninja, a character who is, after all, also a bloody criminal. The point, nicely left oblique, is that criminals love their children too, and want the best for them. That’s a universal human trait, isn't it?  The same idea comes through, as well, in Chappie’s relationship to his actual maker, Deon.

Deon tries to be a good father as well.  He gives Chappie a book and a painting easel, and tells him he can be whatever he chooses to be.  But Deon also wants to impose roles (don’t commit crimes; don’t hurt anybody), but yet doesn’t provide Chappie the underlying moral reasons for obeying those rules. Chappie discovers those for himself after he wounds a police officer during the heist, and sees the blood and injuries.

One of the most touching scenes in the film involves the growing relationship between Chappie and Deon. Chappie learns that he is fated to die, the victim of a low battery that can’t be replaced. He asks Deon why he made him “just to die,” and Deon replies “How was I supposed to know that you would become you?”

He also shares with Chappie a fundamental fact of existence: we’re all born to die, essentially.  

We can’t move our consciousness from one body to another.  When our body fails, our consciousness dies with it. 

For Chappie this is a terrible fact, but powered by the love of Yolandi -- who explains the soul to him -- he changes the world.  He determines to understand consciousness, not just for him, but for human beings too. 

Although it’s a mighty big leap moving human consciousness into robots, I admired the underlying point of Chappie’s discovery.  His love of his parents -- Deon and Ninja included -- and the utter unacceptability of mortality enable him to think in a new, innovative way.

I believe in my heart that this is the story of human generations.  

Each one is a little more evolved, a little better than the last. Our responsibility to the next generation is to start it off right, with love and respect, with safety and understanding.  Then, as that younger grows and matures, those gifts will be returned tenfold as the children we love push the human race another step forward in terms of technological and moral progress.

The fact that Chappie’s consciousness, and human consciousness as well, can both be moved around, in the film’s final act, suggests something else. 

The soul, or consciousness, isn’t limited to human life. We should know this, already, but somehow we don’t. Look into the eyes of your cat, or dog, and tell me it doesn’t possess a soul.

By extension, the same will be true of inorganic life. Chappie discovers that he has a consciousness, and by implication, a soul.  Watching the film, I felt -- for perhaps the first time, perhaps -- that we will see a discovery like this in our life-times. 

If so, how we treat that artificial life, or consciousness, will prove one of the most important tests of human nature, and human decency. 

Will we treat artificial life like children that we must nurture and teach? Or will we, like Vincent Moore, double-down on outdated religious dogma about life, and dismiss the new life in our midst as somehow being second class?

Moore’s character, actually, reflect the hypocritical nature of many prominent religious men.  He claims to be of deep faith, and yet what he really wants to do is to kill people. He’s psychotic, and that’s why he wants the MOOSE operational; so he can commit murder from a safe distance.

When you see so many professed “faithful” people, either in the Middle East, or here in the States arguing for bloody pre-emptive violence against others, you realize that Chappie isn’t far off the mark in its depiction of spiritual hypocrisy. Vincent Moore lives by a fallacy that too many people live by; the appeal to tradition.  Just because something has always been one way -- man is the believed to be the only creature with a soul, for instance -- that doesn’t mean that belief is good, or accurate.

In two hours, Chappie takes viewers through the whole "human" process of growing up...with a robot. Chappie is born, is loved, and matures into an individual who will make his stamp on the world. The film’s amazing virtue, however, is that it shows us how a person with the right start in life can overcome fallacies, defeat hatred, and make things better.

“How was I supposed to know that you would become you?”

Well, when you get right down to it, isn’t that what all parents are supposed to know, or hope for?



  1. Anonymous9:59 AM

    Oh well. The review was going good until the end. It's not that a person with the right start can do those things -- it's that even one with the wrong start can. Harder, certainly. But it can be done.

  2. I completely agree in every way! The most powerful emotionally resonating genre film of the past decade outside of the two "Planet of the Apes" entries. I was so happy that Blomkamp had the creative courage to go for it with the transformative "Brundlefly" ending.

    Even though we have seen these themes and many of the plot points in "Short Circuit", "E.T.", "Robocop" and "Blade Runner" etc, Blomkamp has a truly original vision, both in terms of his striking visuals and his unique worldview. He is a true auteur.

    Critics suck. Seriously. Blomkamp was attacked for this movie with the rabid vitriol usually reserved for Michael Bay or M. Night. As I've said before I just don't get it. Are they just not smart enough (or emotionally receptive) to understand a movie like this? Anyway, I hope after Alien 5 Blomkamp gets back to making personal movies like this one.