Movie Review of Chappie
Reviewed by Brooke A. Carlson
Crappy Chappie AI: Time for Bodies that Matter
“Oops!…I did it again.” Filmmakers Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell offer up a South Africa in the not so distant future that continues to look like a divided and destroyed nation devoid of racial equality. Blomkamp and Tatchell, who brought us District 9 in 2009, have returned to their homeland to mine a similar wasteland of dystopian then/there/here/now, with this year’s Chappie. Blomkamp sticks with Sharlto Copley as his lead (although you’d hardly recognize him as the Artificial Intelligence Chappie), but brings in some big names and screen presence with Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman, and Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame). In his 2013 Elysium, Blomkamp made a similar move, bringing in Matt Damon and Jodie Foster to work around his mainstay Copley.
There are a number of smart things happening in Chappie, a film that is arguably at its best in the mélange of time and space, commodity and reality, which challenges the viewer to participate.1 This is a Frankenstein appropriation, and like Mary Shelley, Blomkamp and Tatchell both challenge and re-affirm gender norms even as they push the boundaries. For those who don’t like having to engage, Blomkamp and company offer an exciting film and sharp aesthetic that still allows for escape and delight. You don’t have to think, and you can just sit back, and enjoy the ride; but the real pleasure comes with engagement. What is AI? What does it mean for us to bring AI into the world?
Chappie gets at these questions through narrative, which means Blomkamp and Tatchell rely heavily on the anthropomorphic representation of AI, from its male trooper robotic droid body, to the baby raising gambit that comes out of gangster parents Ninja and Yolandi, played by…the performance artists Ninja and Yo-landi Visser. A stolen baby is digitized in a security key, Chappie is birthed under the threat of death by Ninja, Yolandi, and their sidekick, (Yankie) Amerika, played by Jose Pablo Cantillo. Dev Patel plays a young engineer, Deon, intent on developing AI far beyond the expectations and needs of his institutional-serving corporation, Tetra Vaal. Sigourney Weaver sits atop this corporate machine as Michelle Bradley, and as a woman made for female ass-kicking on screen, her iconic position here signifies a changing near-future/now.2 Bradley and her Tetra Vaal supply near-future/now Johannesburg with a robotic police force to control the unruly masses. But when Deon begs his superbad Bradley boss to allow him to test this new AI, Bradley mocks him for yearning to create robots that paint and dismisses him. What the woman of power wants is to crank out artificial men to beat down the beastly in a struggling near-future/now South Africa. Women behaving badly, or acting (just?) like men, is the contested space of third-wave feminism. I raise the issue here because this hollow (wo)man is one of several empty representations in this otherwise smart film.
Weaver is not the only woman of power; Yolandi is the brainpower of a trio of small-town thieves looking to rise up the ladder of (idle) crime. Yolandi and her boyfriend, Ninja, along with their sidekick, (Yankie) America, are themselves low workers in a criminal hierarchy led by the King, a fierce, white, muddle of muscle, intent on grabbing more of everything for himself. Owing the King a bundle, Yolandi leads Ninja and America to the creator of the troopers, Deon. With a remote control that she insists Deon must have, they can shut down the electric army and plunder an unprotected city to bring in above and beyond what they need to pay off the King. After hijacking Deon, who has himself stolen a damaged trooper to test his new AI, the gangsters find themselves without a remote control but instead the parents of a new AI baby, one capable of growth, education, and reasoning.
Yolandi nurtures the artistic, kind, and gentle side, and Chappie flourishes under her mothering. We don’t see this really until the end, but the idea of AI maturing or growing as a child is the problem. An upload of a few seconds, minutes, or hours makes for bad filmmaking,3 so the problem of storytelling is solved in part by the anthropomorphic take on AI, and also partially by relegating those strong women to empty signification and representation. To keep us interested in the growth of AI, Chappie has to be infantilized in full, trooper metal, and mothered. Albeit a punk rock gangster of a mother, Yolandi is somehow better than the boyish Indian engineer who creates him. Yolandi, for instance, names the thing Chappie, much to the dismay of Deon, the “maker.” Deon brings Chappie a stuffed animal, a rubber chicken, and a book, and seeks unsuccessfully to get at early modern language development. Yolandi, who is less interested in the science of things, nevertheless picks up where Deon leaves off in the painting and builds a kind of mother-son rapport with the robot. Ninja, on the other hand, throws the baby Chappie to a pack of boys to grow up quickly in the “real world.” The mothering narrative is clearly for human viewers as we later learn that Chappie himself has learned far more than we ever could through downloading and plugging into the Internet.
Weaver’s Bradley is thrown under the bus not only as the CEO solely invested in selling troopers, but also as the person who eventually lets that monster-man back out of the cage, Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, in an attempt to bring back the familiar single-man, chip on his shoulder, violent hero. Vincent is another big, hulking, raging dude in the action movie tradition, and to their benefit, the filmmakers don’t offer him up as a straight package nursing the loss of his lovely wife and daughter to criminals as backstory. We’re left on our own to come up with that (unless I missed it), but without that exposition I find it hard to believe or even understand Vincent, who is dying to get his bigger, badder Moose out on the town to shoot ‘em up. Like the King, Vincent is just another killer man, only (mis)read as slightly less evil because he works for Tetra Vaal. Yolandi sacrifices herself (because even in the near-future/now this is what women do) for Ninja, but she does so as an active participant, rather than a martyr. She fights, and she’s not just mama bear fighting; she’s Ninja’s partner and equal. The film then finishes with the rather novel idea of consciousness uploads of the (new and improved?) surrogate parents: Deon and Yolandi. Ninja, for all his stereotypical failures perhaps, merely gets to live. Yolandi is uploaded into a droid with a female face plate, similar to her real face. We take the sexless shape of the troopers to be masculine, and as AI procreation forgoes genitals and bodily procreation, it is our heavily gendered thinking that posits the necessary feminine markers in the saved Yolandi machine. As our own ongoing expansion of sex and gender in this world shows, masculine and feminine are but signifiers of people and beings more beautiful and vast than the binary allows. AI certainly has no need for this outdated gender stamping. Which leads me to the real problem in the film.
Why (again) must Blomkamp and his team offer up a racially divided and racist near-future/now South Africa? There are several, if not plenty of black police officers, but not one of them speaks. The only speaking role for a black person is a young black boy who attacks Chappie with joy when Ninja drops him in the real world for his hard knocks education. Ninja’s sidekick, (Yankie) America is Latino and speaks. In fact, like Yolandi, America can move back and forth between nurturing and gangster. Yet America, too, is relegated to the periphery.4 Why is the near-future/now so maddeningly white? Devon Patel, as the Indian engineer offers a more powerful role for a person of color. He alone concocts this AI miracle in his home filled with digitized and mechanical lab assistants. But he, like Vincent, is left alone to navigate this dystopic world. If there is no love, emotion, sexuality, or even humanity for him, then his masculinity as mad scientist Frankenstein still renders men (regardless of color) as incompetent social beings. Like the cliché alluded to in my opening,5 Blomkamp is treading a dangerous path that may well lead to obscurity, if not notoriety. In our rapidly changing racially composite world of now, a representation of the near-future/now, especially one born out of South Africa, demands more.
Reviewer Brooke A. Carlson, PhD, teaches early modern English literature, world literature, and critical thinking and writing, at Chaminade University, in Honolulu, HI. His research interests include Korean Shakespeare adaptation, early modern literature, art and capitalism, sound, and gender and sexuality.