Tonight in Robot News
There's a genuine sense of dread surrounding the modern day development of robots. Every new wave of Big Dogs, Petmans and intelligent drones is met, online, with the sort of careless whimsy that only barely hides a pessimistic world view: that the enslavement and/or destruction of the human race at the hands of our own creations is quite inevitable. That Terminator future is in the realm of possibilities and might not be far off – and that's pretty existentially scary.
Chappie comes to offer a different side to this story. What if the robot-turned-intelligent-life-form is essentially a wholesome good guy, preyed upon by wicked humans trying to bring it down to their own, mean level? The AI that powers Chappie starts out as a baby (but far from a tabula rasa – this is a baby with a suitcase full of instincts such as fear and embarrassment) and learns at incredible rate. More specifically, it learns from its environment. Through various plot mishaps, Chappie ends up in one you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy('s baby). Instead of the nurturing hands of his idealistic and grossly naive programmer maker, his surrogate father and mother turn out two desperate, ill-educated gangsters in an abandoned Johannesburg factory complex. Their names are Ninja and ¥o-Landi, and they're played by real life musical duo Die Antwoord, known for their esoteric, avant garde rap/rave music. In fact, they ARE Ninja and ¥o-Landi, in an inexplicable merging of fiction and reality. Is this the next step in product placement? Die Antwoord is definitely weird enough for a stunt like this, or maybe director Blomkamp is just a fan.
Regardless – Chappie, originally a barely sentient police robot, is raised as a gangster, with all the skewed morality that Ninja can cough up to make him perform various crimes. Seeing as there's only a single scene in which his maker makes him promise to be good, it's strange that Chappie displays any moral fiber. After all, this isn't like Robocop, where certain directives are hard-wired into the system. Why would he care about being good? It's a cop-out, because it releases the film of any interesting tension and moral questioning. Chappie is, it seems, inherently a good guy. That might give solace to those fearing synthetic life, but it makes for an uneventful movie. Chappie might as well have been a real person, as the drama centers around him slowly realizing he's being used and that the rules of the world differ from what humans have told him.
He's not unsympathetic, that's not the point. And even the preposterous Die Antwoord gangbangers manage to win you over, which is more than can be said for the employees of Chappie's engineering birthplace Tetravaal. His maker's a wimp and Hugh Jackman's greatest development is towards that of a caricature. Sigourney Weaver is sorely underused, for what turns out to be a bit part. But then, Tetravaal itself is a joke, leaking equipment and weaponry left and right. In Johannesburg, company theft should rank quite as high an epidemic as gang killings.
The film's most interesting achievement comes in the beginning, when the audience is lured into the viewpoint that Chappie is just a tool, a mechanical thing, and then is suddenly seduced into acknowledging his sentience. It's a cool moment.
But the rest rather fails to make good on that promise of offering compelling insights into artificial intelligence and robot sentience. Rather than reaching a profound tears in the rain-moment, it veers off into unearned mysticism. As soon as Chappie cracks the code to downloading actual consciousness onto a USB flash drive, the movie's well underway to fantasy land. And that's a shame, because our society is currently both frightened and obsessed with the topic. Science fiction has a long history of dealing with the subject, so much so that it's become kind of a cliché. But the right story, the right angle, could easily make it feel both modern and relevant. Chappie squanders that opportunity and ends on a note of whimsical wish fulfillment – kind of cute, but lacking a needed punch to the gut. It's a pity, since in the cinema landscape all we're left with is the likes of yet another Terminator explode-a-thon, which only will fuel our apocalyptic dread.