‘Chappie’ Review: Putting the Punk Back in Cyberpunk!

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Neill Blomkamp’s most recent movie, Chappie, is the successor of his previous films District 9 and Eylsium. Where District 9 was mostly about institutional apartheid, and Elysium was about the vast class divide, Chappie is about innovation, parental relationships, and transhumanism. Since I saw the first trailer I couldn’t shake the feeling that this movie was a more mature version of the Disney classic, Short Circuit. This comparison undercuts the value of the film, but is a great concise way to describe the film to someone in a sentence.

Summary

A police robot produced by the Tetravaal Corporation runs a number of raids and seems to be a “bullet magnet”. It returns home on a regular basis for repairs, and after a particular incident it is marked for destruction, because the damage is finally deemed not worth repairing. The robot receives this fatal blow in a raid against drug traffickers, of which Die Antwoord play the characters.

Deon, the creator of the police robots, has been working on a personal project to create true AI. Vincent, played by Hugh Jackman, plays a rival scientist who also developed a rejected police robot. When one of the robots is marked for destruction he decides that he will insert his AI program into it. After being denied access to the robot for this purpose, he steals it. The Die Antwoord crowd, kidnaps him in hope of getting their hands on a remote to deactivate the robots and succeed ina heist.

Upon arriving back at the remote home of the Die Antwoord crowd, they discover the parts for the robot and insist that it be made to work for them, so they can use it in a heist. Deon agrees on the condition that they allow him to install the AI program and that they let him see it. After uploading the program, the robot awakens with the mind set of a child and is named Chappie by Yolandi of the Die Antwoord crowd.

Chappie then undergoes a number of educational moments, and rites of passage at the hands of Deon and Ninja, of the Die Antwoord crowd. After some bonding and rebellion, Chappie is brought on board by Ninja to help with their heist. After the heist, Vincent uploads a virus to all of the police robots immobilizing them, including Chappie, and sending Johannesburg into chaos. He then takes advantage of this chaos to launch his own police robot, the Moose, which is basically a tank and more suited for military use than police use.

Deon manages to bring Chappie back online, and then Deon, Chappie, and the Die Antwoord crowd showdown with Vincent and his robot in the midst of the chaos. Deon is fatally wounded, as is Yolandi, and Chappie manages to save them and then escape into hiding in the slums of Johannesburg, since they are all now wanted criminals.

The First Half/The Second Half

The first half of the movie is slow, but has enough good moments to continue to move the story forward without boring the viewer. Unfortunately, it does feel very unoriginal and formulaic. The second half of the film has a very different feel. The ground work has been laid by this time for great character building, tension, and surprises. Chappie has received a number of unfavorable reviews and I suspect that this is because of the weak opening, but the climax, falling action, and resolution are what really made the movie for me.

The Police

One of the underlying themes of the movie are the mechanization of the police force. On one hand I see this metaphorically representing the militarization, and dehumanization of police forces world wide. This is certainly demonstrated by the aggressive tactics used by the police in the opening of the movie. On the other hand however, this is also the logical conclusion of the increased use of drones in the military and in the police, especially in the US.

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Corporate Agenda

Another underlying theme presented in Chappie is the corporate agenda. The Tetravaal Corporation is far more interested in profits from their police contracts than in new innovation. This is demonstrated in that Tetravaal is not even remotely interested in Deon’s AI research that would allow for a more moral machine, in that they basically cease development of the Moose, once Deon’s robots are successful, and that once the city falls into chaos they are basically only interested in keeping their police contract and PR.

The Punk Aspect

The major punk aspects of the movie are embodied by the Die Antwoord crew. They are classic cyberpunk anti-heroes. Ninja, Yolandi, and Yankie are drug traffickers for a powerful gangster named Hippo. When they lose a large drug shipment to police intervention, Hippo gives them an ultimatum to come up with 20 million rand (the South African currency). They go about planning one last heist to get out of the life and break away from Hippo. They even live in an old abandoned space full of street art. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie, involves Ninja having a father-son moment with Chappie in the aftermath of a dog fighting arena. He asks Chappie if he wants to be the dog rewarded with steak after killing another dog, or the dog laying cold at their feet.

The Screens

Something that stylistically stood out to me was the use of computer screens in the movie. Unlike many Hollywood movies that use crazy visualizations that are completely impractical to represent cool computers, Chappie used very realistic computer screens. Many of these screens would not be out of place as an engineering interface, or linux command line. Even the boot-up we see in Chappie’s eyes when he is restarted look like they are a real computer boot-up sequence. This added a level of realism to the film that I was not expecting and aided in the immersion of the film.

Characters

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The character development in Chappie left a lot to be desired. Only a hand full of characters go through any kind transformation, and the ones that do aren’t the ones that you might expect.

Chappie undergoes a transformation, but as the protagonist of the film I would have been severely disappointed had he not. Chappie literally goes through all of the stages of human development, almost awkwardly. He starts off as not really understanding anything, like a new born. But this almost comes off more like a frightened animal. We get to see Chappie experience childlike wonder at the world and at the things that his parental figures; Deon, Ninja, Yolandi, and Yankie; show him. There is even a moment where Chappie goes through a rebellious teenager stage. Ultimately, Chappie does come off at the end of the movie like he has matured into adulthood, and even surpassed the humans that surround him.

Deon Wilson, Chappie’s creator, plays one of the parental roles but is referred to as creator rather than as father. This brings to mind the question: Is Deon a metaphor for some sort of God? I think that the terminology certainly suggests that, but the interaction between them really is more like that between a biological father and a son who now has a step father. Deon wants to see what is best for Chappie, but also attempts to push his personal morality on Chappie. Chappie eventually resents this, but the event makes Deon himself question his set in stone opinions. Deon’s largest step as a character is this step from overbearing father figure to one that accepts Chappie for the being he has become.

Ninja is the other father figure in Chappie’s life, and the one that he really calls Dad. Ninja goes through the two thirds of the film with only a selfish motive in mind, yet he develops a connection to Chappie. Ninja sees the most character development in the film, going from a kind of abusive criminal stereotype into the unwilling hero. The end of the film sees Ninja’s entire value system shift from a selfish one into one that allows for complete self sacrifice. I have never hated a character so much at the beginning of a film and turned around to realize that by the end I really care whether they live or die.

Yolandi is the most prominent female character in the movie, and the mother figure for Chappie. I was truly sad that she never played a larger role in the film. She undergoes basically no development and is the same weak, female stereotype throughout the film. In constant need of rescue by her male counterparts and exuding femininity. She plays little role in the film other than to be a sort of plot device to trigger certain events to happen.

Yankie is probably the least interesting character in the film, he seems to play no role other than to round out Ninja’s group and to soften Ninja’s sometimes crazy approach to crime and raising Chappie.

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Michelle Bradley is Sigourney Weaver’s character in the film. It was a flat cardboard character, given to an actress good enough to breath some life into the character despite what little she was given. She is the kind of faceless bureaucrat that we imagine is behind all government and corporate mishaps, driven only by only profit and appearances. Considering that Weaver has played one of the strongest women in science fiction, it was sorely disappointing to see her play yet another throw away female character.

Vincent Moore is the major villain of the story. It’s kind of hard for me to call him a villain really though. He is more like a bullish jock stereotype from high school. He works out and chides Deon, the geek, for not doing so. He has a mullet, and is more interested in a war machine than a machine that protects. He is a caricature of every high school bully, masquerading as the villain of our story. He is resentful that Deon’s robots were chosen over his for the police contract and is driven to ruin Deon for this slight. He goes as far as plunging the city into chaos to prove that his robot can do a better job policing, than Deon’s. Of course this fails because Vincent is really just showing off his machismo. Literally the most character development that Vincent sees is that he gets to fail for a second time. Hugh Jackman was really wasted on this role.

AI Evolution

This is an idea that has been cropping up in a lot of movies recently. Not just that AI will evolve, but that they will do it at a extremely fast rate compared to humans. Chappie develops from a child to a mature adult in the course of roughly a week. This idea is central to the concept of the Singularity. Once AI has been born, it is hard to predict how quickly they will evolve, and when or if they will even need us after evolving signifigantly past us.


SPOILERS BELOW


Transhumanism

The part of Chappie that I found the most interesting was the ending, which was almost a side plot in and of itself. We find out that in his free time, Chappie has used humanity’s research into neuroscience to develop a system that allows him to replicate his mind. He then test’s this technology on Yolandi, copying her mental patterns and saving her mind to a digital backup. As the movie draws to a close, Deon is mortally wounded, and Chappie uses this technology to transport Deon’s mind into that of another robot. Then as Chappie is about to die, he transfers his own mind to another robot. Then, they hack into the Tetravaal corporate computers and use the corporation’s factory to build a new body for Yolandi, then they transfer the backup of her mind into it.

This whole sequence makes an interesting supposition. Human and digital minds are not that different. This is a concept that is alien to most people, but is considered a given in many discussions of the Singularity. Few films have used such an effective device to humanize a robotic character and then never before have I seen such a device used to robotize the humans, without stealing away their humanity.

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Sequels

In an interview with IGN, Blomkamp said: “I wrote it as a trilogy. So, I haven’t written the other two, but I wrote treatments for the other two, so I kind of think I know what happens with the next two, but… but I don’t know if I want to say what happens.” This suggest that if the movie does well enough, then we may sequels. I for one would like to see the story of what happens to our newly robotized humans, and humanized robot on the run from South African police. On the other hand the ability to sit back after watching the film and wonder what happens may be enough.

Chappie – 6/10

You can get a copy of Chappie here.

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About the author...
Veritas
Veritas is a cyberpunk and writer who enjoys all aspects of the cyberpunk genre and subculture. He also journeys deeply into the recesses of the dissonance exploring his nihilistic existence.


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