(MA15+) Directed by Neil Blomkamp
Starring Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
by Mark Hadley
From Frankenstein to "Number 5 Is Alive", Hollywood’s humanity has had a troubled history with its creations. Time and again we discover that gaining the power to create life does not mean we also possess the moral compass to direct it. New sci-fi creation Chappie suggests in a new age of artificial intelligence we’re wrestling with the same old questions.
Chappie is the creation of writer/director Neil Blomkamp and his wife Terri Tachell. It follows in the footsteps of his former futuristic dramas Elysium and District 9, though it stands closest to the latter’s more earthy tale. Government need and technological advances have culminated in the production of a robotic police officer to help countries troubled by civil unrest.
This is not a re-run of Robocop; Chappie is grittier and more realistic by comparison. In the rundown neighbourhoods of South Africa these responsive pieces of hardware are helping the authorities restore order, but raising the same moral questions as tasers, tear-gas and high-pressure hoses. Hugh Jackman stars as Vincent Moore, an officer charged with evaluating and integrating these technological tools. He’s also the one called in to handle the situation when one of these robots goes missing. Droid creator Deon (Dev Patel) has decided that these law and order functionaries are capable of so much more, and has decided to install a new operating system into one that will allow it to feel and think original thoughts:
“This is a new kind of life form, a new step in evolution.”
Let’s face it, when a scientist starts talking like that you just know something is going to go wrong. Where the problem arises, though is what makes Chappie challenging. This is not a monsters-out-of-control story like Jurassic Park but more a retake on ET: The Extraterrestrial. The re-tooled police robot christened Chappie embodies the wonder of a puppy and the innocence of a child. Down-and-outs Yolandi and Ninja take on their new friend’s education, teaching him everything from how to walk, to how to survive the mean streets of Johannesburg. What they also teach him is humanity’s fear of difference:
Yolandi: “You know what’s a black sheep?”
Yolandi: “It’s like when you’re different than everyone else.”
And Chappie learns the full meaning of Yolandi’s warning when Vincent is charged by his superiors to burn Chappie to ash – “A thinking robot could be the end of mankind!” Just like in ET the biggest threat is not the alien but the establishment, too blinded by fear and prejudice to see who Chappie might become.
Chappie is a visually exciting and morally challenging production, however Blomkamp hasn’t really ventured into any new territory so far as the story goes. You’ll find the expected "wonder of creation" moments transitioning on cue to the "shattering of the dream" scenes and the subsequent ‘fight for survival’. What’s also not new is our determined rejection of individuals deemed lower than ourselves, regardless of the new life they might take on. Jesus confronted a similar situation when he entered the city of Jericho two thousand years before the era in which Chappie is set.
Bartimaeus was a blind man who occupied one of that society’s lowest rungs. The crowd that followed Jesus that day either overlooked him as a beggar or viewed his strident calls for Jesus to change him as a threat to their peace of mind. They could not see what he might become because they had no vision for what God might do in his life. Chappie rails against the same sort of shortsightedness, though in its case it’s humanity failing to value anything that doesn’t closely resemble itself that’s under censure.
In both cases, though, the film’s villains and the Palestinian onlookers lacked Jesus’ view. Bartimaeus might have had an exterior as scrappy as Chappies, but underneath it Jesus saw a human heart that had the potential to become a child of Heaven. Chappie will do us a service if it reminds us that just because someone doesn’t look, walk and talk like us, doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of the compassion of God.