CHAPPiE: The AI Done Got Bling (a review by localroger)

Note from Peachfront: CHAPPiE is the latest movie reviewed by localroger. I haven’t seen this movie. But the comments will be open for two weeks if you’d like to leave your thoughts. Take it away, Roger…

official Chappie movie poster

movie poster courtesy Wikipedia & Neill Blomkamp

Visionary District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is back with AI coming of age movie CHAPPiE, a film that by all previous experience should have been a hot mess of tangled ideas but actually works much better than it has any right to. I think this movie is worth seeing, so I won’t drop too many spoilers here.

There is a lot to criticize about CHAPPiE, and the critics have done so; as I write this it sits at a dismal 30% on Rotten Tomatoes’ critic tomatometer. But RT has it at a respectable 67% with audiences, and IMDB at 7.4 of 10. The thing is, for all its sins — it skims the background, it rushes through Chappie’s “childhood,” it crams two or three whole plot metaphors into one can, and it runs home to a dualist idea of consciousness that will make the real life AI people toss their popcorn in disgust — it manages to tell a clear, solid story of flawed but sympathetic characters who are living a myth we can all recognize.

Chappie’s creator Deon (Dev Patel) spends his days programming combat police robots, but for years he has been spending his nights trying to implement artificial consciousness. When Deon’s nighttime experiment reaches a critical point, like many real life AI researchers he realizes that he needs to give it a robotic body so it can interact with the real world. But as successful as his robotic cops have been, Deon’s boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t interested in “a machine that can write poems.” So Deon bends the rules, in a move that’s more Prometheus than Jehovah, hijacking a wrecked droid scheduled for destruction to fix up and host his personal project.

It is at this point we find out why Chappie’s story begins with a tightly choreographed scene of a drug deal gone horribly and violently wrong. A group of gangster thugs who need to come up with a lot of money very quickly to save themselves from even more violent gangsters target Deon as the guy who might have the “remote control off switch” for the robotic cops. In fact he has no such thing, but he does have Chappie, a baby with the potential to be more than human but no experience at all. The thugs commandeer Chappie, and two of them, Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), end up falling into the roles of Chappie’s “mommy” and “daddy.”

This is, of course, a ridiculously contrived gimmick and it works perfectly because it is so true to the central metaphor; after all, God may have created us in his image, but many of us end up with parents no better suited to raise us than Yolandi and Amerika and God doesn’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.

Deon tries to give Chappie a moral compass, making him promise not to do harm or do crimes, but Chappie does end up doing wrong, because his daddy deliberately misleads him so he will assist in a heist and and out of fear when he realizes Deon has put him in a flawed body doomed to die in a few days because its damaged battery cannot be replaced.

As this is going on Deon’s colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman) is getting miffed that his robot isn’t getting funded because all the money is going to development of Deon’s autonomous humanoid “Scouts.” Vincent’s “Moose” is a larger, more heavily armed robot that came off the same assembly line as ED-209 in the original Robocop, except that Moose is controlled by a human wearing a neural interface helmet. Nobody is interested in Moose because it’s too big, too heavily armed for the urban crime control the Scouts have revolutionized, and the Scouts don’t need human operators.

So while Deon is busy with the gang members and Chappie, Vincent (whose background is more military than engineering) decides to sabotage the Scout program by downloading corrupted firmware into all of them. This all culminates in a colossal battle echoing the one between Robocop and ED-209, except this time it’s the smaller humanoid Chappie who is a pure machine and the hulking Moose that has a human pilot.

If this all sounds rather physical for a movie with so many religious ideas in its DNA, you might do well to remember that even the Wachowskis have admitted that The Matrix is basically a wrestling movie. What is refreshing about CHAPPiE is that it serves up this alternate creation myth without the usual cathedral-like spaces, clean room altars, and choral arias of movies like Tron and Transcendence. Chappie is born into a dirty, messy, violent world where daddy doesn’t teach you to swagger because he wants you to be bad so much as because he wants you to survive.

There is a lot going on in CHAPPiE, and I suspect this is one reason some people have trouble with it. Unlike a lot of other movies that run for 120 minutes there’s no half hour that should have been left on the editing room floor. Every time it looks like one plot or device is being stretched a bit thin something different happens to divert your attention. The escalating tension is broken by occasional bits of hilarity, such as Chappie being taught to be “cool” and getting tatted (with spray paint and stencils) and blinged up by the thugs.

If the philosophy and science are C-grade the characters and cinematography make it up; even the thugs are humans who prove capable of love and respect, and while it’s not completely technically accurate some of the computer development scenes with Deon give an accurate sense of what it feels like to do that kind of work.

While I don’t agree with the way the ending unfolded for technical reasons I respect and understand why the movie took the approach it did; if it were possible to easily save Chappie by simply copying his code to other Scouts or a SD card there would have been no suspense. It’s hard enough for a movie to deal with the idea of an AI as a human character without adding things like multiple instances and serial immortality to the mix.

There isn’t a lot that is new in CHAPPiE; it takes its place in a respectable line of pictures which formed up when HAL 9000 went bonkers in Kubrick’s 2001. I think what I like best about CHAPPiE is that, while it places itself at the focal point of creation like Tron and Transcendence, it is not so in awe of itself that it leaves the world. Chappie isn’t the genocidally powerful Colossus or Skynet. it’s not the unfathomably superintelligent yet neurotic HAL 9000. Chappie is like the droids of Star Wars in that he has to make his way in a violent and dangerous world, but he is unlike them in that he is the first of his kind and nobody will take his existence for granted. Niether Chappie nor his own god-humans seem very godlike, even when they are transcending all expectations.

And I think that is, in fact, what would be new about CHAPPiE, if it weren’t several thousand years old. In CHAPPiE humans function more like pagan gods with our own flaws and vulnerabilities than like the pure entities of Christianity which are described by so many adjectives beginning with omni-. It’s not a new thing, but it is a new-ish thing for the cinema. And it provides for a much better story, because really, it’s very, very hard to tell an interesting story about anything with an omni- in it. Having done it myself, I know that very well.

All in all, CHAPPiE is a movie that does a lot of things wrong that last year’s mega flop Transcendence did right with regard to technology and future speculation, but it does the most important thing right — the thing that Transcendence missed. CHAPPiE tells an engaging story with sympathetic characters. Critics or no critics, that’s what it’s all about.