I was thinking…

…it’s really quite interesting how we, as a species, after millennia of searching, pondering, and philosophizing, are still mystified by the same questions regarding existence. Neither our hubristic claims of intellectual evolution nor our myriad advances in technology and medicine have been able to better explain the world of the soul. Call it what you will–spirit, consciousness, intelligence–many of us still question what it is, exactly, that makes us sentient, id est self-aware. Only the ways in which we contemplate this ontological quandary are what have changed over the years.

In writer/director Niell Blomkamp‘s (District 9) latest outing, Chappie, he utilizes the tools of the digital age as well as the views of our current zeitgeist to plumb the depths of this question.

The titular Chappie (Sharlto CopleyDistrict 9, The A-Team) starts existence as a police automaton in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and hundreds of androids like him, called scouts, have been designed by Deon Wilson (Dev PatelSlumdog Millionaire) and manufactured by Tetravaal, a corporation run by CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney WeaverAliens Tetralogy, Avatar). In order to save the lives of their police officers and curb the insanely high crime rate, the city puts these droids into service, much to the chagrin of not only the criminal underworld but also Wilson’s rival at Tetravaal, an Australian soldier/engineer named Vincent Moore (Hugh JackmanX-Men movies).

Moore is understandably upset, however, as his creation, the human-controlled mechanical behemoth he calls Moose, is essentially mothballed due to the success of Deon’s scouts. The criminal element, on the other hand, is upset that they’re being systematically eradicated by the seemingly indestructible police force.

One particular trio of criminals with really bad late 1980’s hair styles hatches a scheme to kidnap Deon in order to learn how to shut the droids down, thus freeing them to carry out their heists and repay a crime boss with an even worse hair style (think of a gaggle of love children somehow spawned by Vanilla Ice and Billy Ray Cyrus).

The trio, led by a man who calls himself Ninja (and he does this in real life, too; although his real name is Watkin Tudor Jones), happens to abscond with Deon the very same evening the latter is making off with a scout unit marked for decommission and destruction. It is Deon’s intent to use the decommissioned scout to test an artificial intelligence program he has been writing. Although he must launch his experiment under duress, Wilson brings the unit to “life” and Chappie is born.

As Chappie learns, he is torn between doing what is right in order to please his maker and in “being cool” in order to fit in with his new “family” of criminals. Moore, meanwhile, seeks to turn the situation surrounding the illegally procured Chappie to his professional advantage.

The true crux of the situation is that Chappie’s battery is fused directly to his chassis, meaning he has only five days of power left before effectively dying.

This is where the metaphysical aspect of this film comes into play. As Chappie becomes self-aware, he also becomes aware of his impending doom and develops a very real fear of death.

When Chappie questions his maker, Deon, as to why he was created only to die, he mirrors the countless number of men and women over the centuries who have looked up to the heavens and petitioned their Creator with the same inquiry. Indeed, without a grasp of the eternal, such an act might seem like one of cruelty. Nevertheless, the parallel is there–with man playing god and robot playing man. Is it a stretch then to see the similarity between the name of Chappie’s creator and the Latin word for God, Deus?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Of course this is not the first time man has played god in a medium of popular culture. Had Mary Shelley been our contemporary, perhaps her Creature (mistakenly referred to as Frankenstein by many today) would have been made of titanium rather than assembled from necrotic appendages.

Chappie gives more than a nod to several of its more recent predecessors as well. In what I feel is a very blatant homage to Robocop, the scouts speak in a very un-South-African, very American monotone. The way in which the scouts are feared by the criminal element and the insidiously high crime rate of the city demanding tougher law enforcement measures also hearken back to the Detroit of Paul Verhoeven’s making. Let’s not forget to mention the rather obvious comparison between Robocop‘s ED-209 and the Moose. Then of course there are hints of Terminator, Short Circuit and perhaps other films I can’t quite think of at the moment.

Perhaps most stunning about this film, however, are the effects. Actor Sharlto Copley’s performance as the sentient Chappie is captured in every nuance by a team of over 200 talented CG artists. Copley refers to their efforts as “sort of like a poor man’s motion-capture,” in that Copley performed on the set and the animators mimicked even the most minute movements in their CG model to bring the robot to life. “So it’s very much that I play the character, that I play the robot,” he goes on to say, “and the animators use everything that I’m doing in the same way that motion capture would work.”He pays rather unique tribute to this talented army of animators in this clip:

Overall, the film moves with a rapid pace, immersing the viewer in the violent world of Johannesburg from the very first sequence. The musical score provided by Hans Zimmer (Dark Knight Trilogy, Sherlock Holmes) adds poignancy to the proper moments of introspection. But the performances, the circumstances, and the superbly realistic work produced by the CG artists make a wholly artificial creation one with which we can all empathize.

Ammo Dump rating: 8 out of 10 mullets…I’m sorry, that should say bullets.

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show. Listen in every Friday afternoon starting at 4:10 on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on or the “I Heart Radio” app on your smart phone.

Rated R
Run time: 120 minutes


One thought on “Chappie

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