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“I’m Chappie. Baymax is a fuck-mother.”

Chappie is getting torn apart and it’s mostly undeserved. This is not a movie that altogether works, but it has so much personality that the real question isn’t whether it’s any good but whether or not you find that personality obnoxious. I won’t lie, a lot of whether you like Chappie or not is going to depend on how you take Die Antwoord, for whom this movie is basically a kind of elaborate fictive celebration. To illustrate where my biases are, I will tell you that I don’t care about Die Antwoord one way or the other. I don’t listen to their music, and I knew who they were only vaguely before Chappie was announced. This has not really changed. Chappie didn’t turn me into a fan, but it did affirm that they can act which is good enough for the purposes of this film. More on them later, but for now just understand that they are central to the movie and that probably has a lot to do with the beating that its taking.

Chappie is really all about its titular robotic character. And Chappie, as a character, is a winner. Not only is he a totally believable CG creation, which is starting to become so commonplace it’s not really a big deal anymore, but Sharlto Copley infuses him with such innocence, charm, enthusiasm, and chaotic energy that you can’t help but love him. This is where the movie won me over, making me love it a little in spite of some truly flawed and half-assed writing. None of the writing for Chappie himself is half-assed, it’s the other stuff: the tacked on villains and ancillary plot lines. He’s a full-fledged character, functioning as a kind of mix between Johnny-5 and E.T. with a little Robocop thrown in for fun. Neill Blomkamp and co-writer Teri Tatchell use the character and those surrounding him to craft a bona fide trans/post-humanist narrative that plays a lot better to the underlying concepts than most other movies that exploit those concepts. This is not a “science is bad, mmmk?” movie. In fact, the movie takes the same shots at the corrupting influences on science (self-serving commerce and self-righteous morality) that Big Hero 6 did and I’d say that Chappie, in many ways, feels like a punk rock (or outsider hip-hop), R rated take on some of the same themes.

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In the Johannesburg of 2017ish, police have pretty much lost control of the rampant civilian crime. A company called Tetravaal (the name of a short film that was sort of the seed from which Chappie was born) has filled a gap in personnel with robotic police called Scouts. Deon (Dev Patel) designed them and Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is busy reaping the praise and trying to get more Scouts out there. It’s important to understand that, at this phase, the Scouts are still in the establishment phase and have not been around for that long. It can be easy to forget this detail as the movie goes on, and many critics apparently have that issue and go on to critique the logic of the movie based on things like this. Anyway, there’s only 100 of them out there and recently Scout 022 has suffered irreparable damage. This prompts Deon to go around Bradley’s orders and initiate his attempt at creating true Artificial Intelligence using the damaged body. This is a great example of how he could have done ten other things, all better justified and less silly/unbelievable, and the storytelling goals would have been accomplished just the same. Why not explain your plans to Bradley? Why not negotiate the use of the body? Her complaint is really just “too much red tape”. It’s insane that Deon has no response to that other than to go rogue.

Conflict comes in two forms. The first is the cartoon character Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a poorly thought out character who basically functions as a representation of qualities Blomkamp always seems to include in his villains. He’s half Krueger from Elysium and half the bloodthirsty soldier guy in District 9 and is about 1/82nd as menacing or interesting as either of those guys. Jackman is lost in this movie, playing a character who both looks and acts ridiculous and whose primary motivation for what he does is a sharp jealousy because Deon’s program is working out better than his own. Moore designed the Moose, an ED-209-like walking tank that feels very much like a military machine (Moore is said to be a former soldier) that he is trying to sell to police. There’s some kind of comment here about the militarization of police, but it’s short-changed by the police refusing the program and by the fact that no one mentions the possibility of a military application. Instead, Bradley is losing patience and cutting funding to the Moose as Moore keeps adding more features and specifications to it that are completely outside the scope of the “robotic police” mandate. So he hates Deon, who he knows is interested in AI, for eclipsing and for doing it with humanoid robots that offend his vaguely Christian sensibilities about moral agency and autonomy (which he is a total hypocrite about). The problem with this football-clutching, handgun-wearing joke of a character is that his motivations are petty and his scheme so basic and maniacal that it speaks to total incompetence at Tetravaal, or the laziness of the writers, that he actually pulls it off. This is not a very competent man, so how does he single-handedly destroy the Scout program and then get away with wreaking havoc with his Moose at the end of the movie? If there are justifications or reasons underlying this stuff, they aren’t in the movie.

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The dynamic here feels like an aborted repetition of the dynamic between Krueger and Delacourt in Elysium.

The other conflict comes from Ninja, Yolandi (Die Antwoord, playing themselves sort of), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo)… a trio of gangsters who have run afoul of some kind of ur-Gangster and now need to pay him 20 million dollars(?) or die. They figure that turning off the Scouts is the key to victory so they kidnap Deon, which is incredibly easy for them given his status as a lead engineer in a high tech robotic security company, and put him to work. It just so happens that he’s about to activate his AI program in the defunct robot body. Ninja seizes the opportunity to get himself his own Scout and thus Chappie (Sharlto Copley) is born. Deon tries to stay around and give Chappie a positive influence, but the gangsters force him away at gunpoint in order to train Chappie as their personal robot muscle.

One half of this works, the other half doesn’t. The best scenes in the movie all involve the raising of Chappie, about the most twisted “adoptive family” story imaginable, and yet full of heart and warmth somehow. Yolandi is immediately softened by Chappie’s innocence, due to his consciousness being borne of a program structure that has to grow and learn just as a human child, but at a vastly accelerated rate due to higher baseline intelligence. Ninja grows to care for Chappie much slower, and we as a result don’t care much for Ninja throughout the film. Though the cartoonishness of Moore somewhat extends to these bizarre hipster gangsters, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Die Antwoord’s inclusion doesn’t work in the movie. In fact, they’re both more than adequate performers who bring a large amount of the personality to the movie. It’s just… are you going to like this personality? I can’t blame you if you don’t. They could very fairly be characterized as obnoxious beyond tolerance.

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And yet, watching them teach Chappie to be the “rudest bad boy in Joburg” is somehow pretty fucking fun.

The thing that emerges clearly from this part of the movie is that Chappie is far more a twisted comedy than it is anything else. And that’s where the movie really, really works for me. Even as an action movie, it’s really light on action scenes. It’s not quite thoughtful enough to really present itself as a science fiction thinkpiece, either. So what’s left that works best?

Comedy. Comedy that extends organically from the premise of Chappie’s life: he’s a robot baby raised by cartoon gangsters. And Blomkamp plays that angle for all its worth. It’s almost too bad that he also had to sneak in his usual disgust for militarism while also appropriating the sexiness of militaristic imagery and weaponry. It’s a kind of bizarre conflict inherent in his movies to see a regular guy like Wickus (District 9) combat the forces of econo-militarization with a badass mecha war machine, just as it’s bizarre to watch a gentle robot like Chappie beat Vincent within an inch of his life as a teachable moment about reckless violence. What I like about this is that it feels like Blomkamp is channeling, at an almost avataric level, the uncomfortable conflict many people in our culture have between the various motivations involved with the portrayal of violence, from the moral causes of violence we can support to the ones we can’t, and all the fungible trappings of violence, the weapons and moves and glorious destruction, that we enjoy in our fiction.

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The Moose stuff is so awesomely cyberpunk in spite of the sloppy storytelling around it.

On the other hand, Chappie also includes some prime transhumanist ideas. Presented with a consciousness problem, namely that consciousness is not understood enough by humans to be transferable or copyable, Chappie sets about “solving” the problem using his greater intellect. He makes a rather obvious connection between the VR technology used to neurally link a pilot to the Moose with the storage and compiling mechanics of Deon’s AI program. This feels pretty cool, in spite of its obviousness, and is deceptively basic. This means that people unused to reading science fiction, or who have no real comfort with engineering concepts and techniques (I know very little about the latter, personally), are going to feel like it’s all too easy or too analog or not futuristic enough. For example, I’ve seen critics making fun of Deon’s naming of his program: “consciousness.dat”…. but what the fuck would an artificial intelligence researcher/engineer name a file like that? Especially if it’s one of 900+ days worth of iterations of an experimental program? Should it have had some cleverer name? Something fucking Latin maybe?

Anyway. So Chappie solves the problem, meaning he can get a new body and survive (his battery is non-replaceable and running out). He can also, it turns out, store human consciousness and give humans robotic bodies. When Deon is fatally shot during the movie’s big fuck-off action sequence (Chappie vs. Moose), this becomes necessary. I was surprised that the movie went there. I shouldn’t have been. This is the same guy that didn’t have Wickus become cured of his transition into Prawnhood in District 9, but fully embraced the idea of icky or radical bodily change. I suspect Blomkamp is a transhumanist, or at least sympathetic to that mentality. Interestingly, Chappie handles this stuff much better than last year’s Transcendence in spite of the fact that it’s a much less serious, much less pedigreed film.

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Chappie does, reluctantly, become a badass at the end.

Some of the other stuff people are complaining about here seems flat out made up to me. One thing that stands out is critics complaining that the Die Antwoord gang indiscriminately kill police and so on. They don’t. That doesn’t happen. But even if it did, we’re still allowed to like/root for antiheroes that do shoot at or kill police. Terminator 2 comes to mind, which is actually pretty similar to the way Chappie throws ninja stars at the legs of cops and guards (go to sleep!).

There’s also this idea that Blomkamp is this huge racist because he has black criminals in his movies. Do people question when L.A.-set films and TV shows feature black street gangs? If part of the tapestry of Johannesburg is street gangs or other criminal enterprises that are made up, at least partially (the main criminal villain in this film is white ffs), of black or nonwhite people… why is it a racial choice rather than a representation of the reality of that particular place? You’ll also notice that two of the main characters in Chappie are played by nonwhite actors. Chappie himself is a “black sheep”, a nonwhite, nonhuman intelligence that the movie argues is a consciousness with fundamental personhood. I guess I’m a little tired of people reaching for these types of criticisms when it’s really something else about a film (in this case) that’s actually bothering them. The above may seem like a case of “doth protest too much”, but I really don’t see a case for active racism in Blomkamp’s films and yet the accusation dogs him. Some of it is down to ignorance in North America for how race is dealt with or conceptualized in other parts of the world, and some of it is down to disliking something and adding some kind of moral component to supplement that dislike.

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I mean, are you going to level moralist complaints at a movie that features, as one of its best bits, a series of carjackings played for laughs?

And then there are the people who had a great deal of confirmation bias going into Chappie, for which the buzz has always been negative, and/or who hate Die Antwoord enough to toss this whole movie out due to their presence in it. I get the disliking part. I can’t blame anyone for disliking Chappie due to its obnoxiousness or even the sloppy storytelling outside of the central premise. It’s the type of movie where a character will do a thing, and you can think of two better ways it could have happened that don’t make everybody look incompetent, stupid, or whatever. I just can’t get the claims that the movie is amoral or racist.

As a final word, I’d say that my own overall reaction to Chappie is one of cautious affection. I kind of love this movie, for many reasons not least of all how obnoxious it is or flirts with being. At the same time, it has considerable flaws that seem just… unnecessary. It’s like if someone did this cool painting but forgot to fill in the lower right corner, leaving a conspicuous and careless spot of nothing you can’t help but stare at every time you try to fully enjoy the painting. That said, it’s also, like Jupiter Ascending, receiving an unfair and sort of nasty degree of backlash from the same demographic that complains about Transformers but too often fails to meet interesting, if flawed, movies halfway. I guess I’m just not jaded enough yet. Who knows.

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I’m just going to enjoy the outrageousness of a movie that gives me these characters in a shot like this.

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