Film Review: Chappie Is a Refreshingly Not-Set-in-America Imagining of a Technological Future

A coming-of-age story about a sentient robot, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s latest film, Chappie, is a sorely underrated and original film that leaves the audience, or at least me, musing on the endless possible futures of artificial intelligence.

Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the designer of the successful and autonomous robotic police scouts manufactured by defense company Tetra Vaal Corp. Deon painstakingly develops a program that can mimic the sequence of human mental development, but at the exponential pace of a being with more computing power than our own. His boss, Tetra Vaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), takes no interest in his proposal for a robot that would “think and feel, write poetry, have original ideas” and waves off the idea. (Though, confusingly, she later seems to realize its significance and wants to destroy Deon’s creation, warning that a “thinking robot can be the end of mankind.”)

Deon decides to illicitly install the program anyway, choosing a defunct police robot whose battery was fused into the chassis by fleeing criminals while it was in operation. But before he can complete the work, he’s kidnapped by a gang (played by members of the Cape Town-based rave-rap group Die Antwoord). It seems the thugs want to steal and reprogram Tetra Vaal police robots to help them commit crimes. Deon is thus forced to test his sentient program in their presence and give the robot to them to “raise” from its nascence, allowing for Chappie the robot (Sharlto Copley) to be born into a less than ideal situation, much to Deon’s dismay.

Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), Deon’s colleague at Tetra Vaal and the creator of a runner-up, warlike police bot that requires human neural control to function, is the more straightforward antagonist. Psychotically jealous of Deon, Moore strongly believes that a robot cannot be moral without a human operator and that artificial intelligence without human limits is too dangerous. Incidentally, it’s implied that these concerns stem from his religious belief.

Critics have attacked the storyline as being too contrived and accuse Blomkamp of employing his usual template upon which he can paint obvious metaphors for social issues, such as apartheid in District 9, and income & wellbeing inequality in Elysium. In this case, it’s the politics and moral quandaries of artificial intelligence and sentience against a backdrop of violence, crime, and urban decay.

Critics also attack Chappie for being overly ambitious in confronting a multitude of ideas: a militant robotic police force; a society where corporations aren’t interested in developing artificial superintelligence (ASI); of morally aware and autonomous nonhuman or post-human beings; of what being human might mean (and what significance mortality would have) if we could shed our biological bodies but retain our “consciousness.” The film’s tagline is: “Humanity’s last hope isn’t human,” and many have criticized Chappie for not justifying this notion.

The film also doesn’t delve into details about how a creation like Chappie could be accomplished (even though real methods of ASI-development have been theorized and worked on). Relying on the idea that an algorithm could be created to make an artificial intelligence capable of self-improvement, Chappie the robot eventually discovers how to upload consciousness in an effort to preserve its own life, and even preserves his mother figure, Yolandi, so that she doesn’t “have to go to the other place,” referring to what Yolandi told Chappie comes after death.

I would argue that these criticisms are somewhat (although not totally) irrelevant to the enjoyment and, especially, to the significance of Chappie. Following the likes of Lucy, Her, Transcendence, Big Hero 6, Robot & Frank, Autómata, and I, Robot, with Eva in theaters now and Ex Machina to come, it’s one in a long line of scientifically aware and philosophically thought-provoking films on artificial intelligence and transhumanism made in the last decade or so. I’d argue that there is much truth to be discovered in pseudoscientific attempts at depicting possible future realities. (For a deeper conversation on robot sentience, see Steven Spielberg’s TV show Extant, where the character Ethan is a robot programmed to develop just like a human child, at the same rates of development and with the same limitations as a human child.)

Some have found Chappie’s portrayal of violence to be exaggerated, even to the level of a Quentin Tarantino film, though never with Tarantino’s campiness or beautification. In fact, the stark portrayal of violence made the film all the more poignant, as Chappie navigates through it with his superhuman physical advantages and regular human feelings. Interestingly, he is more morally complex by the end of the film. “What I really like about Chappie is that it’s doing the opposite of what Hollywood films normally do,” Blomkamp remarked in a March 6 interview at the Telegraph. “The Hollywood thing is that robots always blow us up…  So I thought: ‘Nah, I’ll just go the other way.’”

I’d also add that it’s not often that Hollywood features stories authentically immersed in the present-day of another culture, so I am pleased that Blomkamp again uses South Africa as his setting (though he did show a lot of white people for Johannesburg…makes you wonder if it should’ve been set in Cape Town instead).

When asked in the Telegraph interview about the film’s optimistic portrayal of artificial intelligence, Blomkamp said:

Well, that comes from a few different places. I’ve been interested in AI for a long time—just as a scientific concept. If you really get into it, scientists don’t really know exactly where morality and ethics come from in humans. Whether it’s a learned behavior, or a genetically intrinsic behavior … and if it is intrinsic, how do you code it? How do you tell an organism to be ethical?

Of course, that goes both ways. If an entity isn’t biologically being “told” to act a certain way, that means that it also isn’t feeling aggression, and negative emotions like that. A lot of people today are saying artificial intelligence will wipe us out, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true.  I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that it’s going wipe us out.

My question is, if Chappie could learn to upload consciousness, couldn’t he also have learned a lot more and surpassed our knowledge in other ways that would render human morality irrelevant? (And, yes, I’m using this gender pronoun because Sharlto Copley is male but transhumanism certainly would force us to finally reconceptualize pronouns if transgender pronouns don’t soon become mainstream.)  Would this signal the singularity? I suppose this is a detail left in the unspecified “humanness” of Chappie’s ability to “feel.”

All in all, the film is an entertaining and refreshingly not-set-in-America imagining of a technological future that will engage your imagination long after the end of the film. Indeed, Chappie could have said a lot more were it not confined by the standard running time of film.