Sunday, 8 March 2015
Neill Blomkamp expands his Tempbot short to once again posit sentient machines as bewildered innocents caught up in mankind's repulsive urges. It's an accusatory stance that shares a lot of headspace with Alex Garland's excellent Ex Machina, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell just soft pedal the punches with a madcap, comedic framing.
A bleep-blopping Sharlto Copley plays Chappie, a one-off consciousness program running in the junked shell of a former police robot. Chappie is explicitly created without a strict purpose. His creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), apparently compiles the identity just to see if he can. We don't spend too much time with Wilson so it's never clear if Chappie was always just a vanity project or maybe even a result of the developer's loneliness. After all Wilson's living room is a Google Village version of JF Sebastian's residence. Regardless, the robot quickly falls into the hands of a stick-up crew cum hip-hop collective who approach him as an invincible accomplice.
Chappie's mind is stuck in a formative state. He's not accepting commands, he wants to be nurtured. Short Circuit is an obvious point of comparison, although that film (and its pretty decent sequel) are more about rehabilitation. Johnny 5 has to forget that he is a gun and take up civic responsibility to earn his citizenship. The Short Circuit films equate consciousness with a desire to obey the laws of man and thereafter eke out a lower middle-class, tax paying existence.
Chappie doesn't have this chance. He billets with screeching mutoids who fill his head up with martial arts ultraviolence. In between shuriken lessons, a (broken) family dynamic begins to emerge from the robot's primary care givers. Yolandi becomes a spaced out mother figure, childlike and tender but too frail to resist her aggressive mate. Ninja is the impatient father figure who expects Chappie to quickly assume his identity. In Blomkamp land AI aren't equals scratch built to share utopia, they're sponges that risk soaking up all our bad habits.
Crucially, Chappie retains a certain level of interpersonal obliviousness. He's wild and chaotic, like a child desperate to impress. Unlike say Uncle Bob from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Chappie never really learns to moderate his basic physical interactions. Fist bumps are painful for the recipient and a routine third-act confrontation, in which the robots intends to deliver a mild beat down, is disproportional and terrifying.
Chappie has never learnt who or what he is. No-one bothered to teach him. He doesn't have a superior moral framework in place. Similarly his drives aren't mysterious, they're direct products of his immediate, occasionally harrowing, experience. The film rejects the typically grand approach of mankind as incompetent Gods and instead wonders what if we were just really shitty parents?