More Human Than Human — “Chappie”

Chappie and dog South Africa

by Gabriel Valdez

Chappie is absolutely everything I want to see in a science-fiction movie. It’s thick with ideas, its twists and turns fast and furious by the end of its two hours.

Let me preface this: I am not a fan of either of director Neil Blomkamp’s previous films. District 9 was interesting, but still had too many holes to sort out by the time its credits rolled. Elysium was promising but crashed and burned in its second half. Both films were chock full of great ideas ruined by uneven execution.

Blomkamp knew this, too, even going so far as to apologize to fans for Elysium. So he went back to the drawing board and stuck closer to home with Chappie.

To recount its plot too deeply would be to reveal any number of twists on its Dickensian orphan formula. Essentially, police in South Africa have begun to use man-sized robots to quell crime. They fight, they shoot, they act as mobile shields. One such robot takes a few extra risks protecting those around him, becomes too badly damaged, and ends up in the trash heap. Its developer, Deon (Dev Patel), begs his boss to study it, but the company doesn’t want to risk artificial consciousness.

Meanwhile, a group of down-on-their-luck gangsters plan to pull off a major heist. They just need to kidnap Deon to get him to turn the police robots off. Deon kidnaps the robot he wants to study, the gangsters kidnap Deon, and one of cinema’s most intriguing alternative families is born.

Chappie gangster

The robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), is like a child. The gangsters consist of a father, a mother, their compatriot Amerika, and have a difficult relationship with Deon – the Maker. Each pulls Chappie in different directions – his mother teaches him compassion and self-confidence, his father sabotages that confidence to toughen Chappie up and make him useful, his maker teaches him right from wrong. Chappie can’t make sense of it all, and eventually feels betrayed by and lost from each of these lights in his life.

If it’s starting to sound like something of a faith-based movie, you wouldn’t be wrong. If Chappie were a little boy questioning God instead of a robot questioning his designer, this would be drawing faith-based crowds in droves. The allegory at play is much the same, which brings us to the film’s Satan – a competing robot designer named Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who will stop at nothing to sabotage Deon’s success and destroy Chappie. Jackman is utterly brilliant in the role, using that burning intensity we cheer on in his other performances to create someone who’s inconsolably angry at not measuring up.

This is a film about being tugged into all sorts of moral confusions and compromises upon being gifted into the world. Chappie makes mistakes, some of them horrible. We root for him, but we’re also rooting for his understanding of the world and his uniquely personal sense of faith. We want Chappie to live, but more than that – we want him to get the chance to live on his own terms. That’s the crux of the film’s drama. We’re worried for Chappie, sure, but we’re much more worried for who he’ll turn out to be. Every lesson imparted, every moral compromised, every death inflicted – even a touching encounter with a dead pit bull – it all takes a toll on his soul.

Mommy Daddy Chappie

Chappie is a crazy movie – the gangsters are played by South African rap artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (often wearing their band Die Antwoord’s t-shirts), its blistering action is a major step up from what Blomkamp’s delivered before, and its audacious last 10 minutes is the stuff of sci-fi legend. (If you think you have any idea where this film’s going, believe me – you don’t.)

It’s all anchored by how we feel about Chappie, how much we need to see Chappie succeed because, to be honest, he isn’t just a robot. He’s each of our failures, our confusions, our indecisions and insecurities up on that screen. By teaching a robot how to be human and what to value, we get a stark look at our own lives and values.

More than anything else, Chappie offers us the chance to look at where we are as humans – and it’s not always a pretty picture we see staring back at us. The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic future wasteland – 2016 looking just like 2015 – and suggests that our worst sci-fi visions of societal failure already exist for many in the world.

Keep in mind, Chappie is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity. It’s cute throughout because of the childlike nature of Chappie, but it marries this to stark and sudden moments of violence – it doesn’t play around with the effect of guns. Some call this uneven, but it’s very intentional. When we’re prepared for it, we view violence through a different lens as an audience. Because Chappie disarms us and opens up our empathy, the brutality here can feel like salt in a wound. Like Chappie, we’re not prepared for it. That’s no mistake; that’s the point.

(For more on what robots mean to us in movies today, read Our Better Angels, Our Gifted Children.)

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Chappie have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Yo-Landi Visser plays Yolandi and Sigourney Weaver plays Michelle Bradley, a robotics company CEO.

2. Do they talk to each other?

No, but I’ll grant some leeway on how you read Chappie. Is Chappie a he, a she, or an it? He’s played by a male actor (Sharlto Copley) in a rough variation on motion capture and other characters refer to him as a “he.” I read him as male while watching, but that may have as much to do with my own bias.

3. About something other than a woman?

Since I’m treating the last question as a no, this doesn’t apply, but the women in this film rarely talk about men.

As always, the Bechdel Test is a tool. The portrayals of women here are fairly positive. Weaver’s Bradley is a CEO who puts the company first, but who doesn’t seem unfair while doing so. She runs a business that makes weapons and makes no bones about it. That’s her job and she does it well. Her character poses an obstacle to Deon and the constructive things he wants to accomplish, but she also poses an obstacle to Vincent and the destructive goals he wants to meet.

Visser’s Yolandi is posed as the mother figure to Chappie, but it doesn’t feel like a diminutive role. She runs heists, is introduced in a three-sided gunfight, backs down her partner Ninja regularly, is definitely Amerika’s superior, and seems to have veto power over the gang’s biggest decisions. If she wants to sit down and read Chappie a bedtime story, I’m sure as hell not getting in her way.

(There’s been a lot of fuss over Die Antwoord’s involvement in the film, but they’re very good in their roles.)

It’s a small cast – outside Chappie, there are six core roles. Two of these are women, four men. It’s not perfect, but it portrays women who are powerful and don’t fit into stereotypes, and it does so in a positive way.

More to the point, Chappie has a strong throughline of criticizing patriarchy. Chappie himself is torn between his mother and his maker – who teach him to value himself – and his father, who tears down Chappie’s self-worth and replaces it with the need to be tough and act violent. There’s no simpler metaphor for how patriarchy feeds into misogyny and racism.

When you have self-worth, you don’t need to push others down in order to feel valued. When someone tears your self-worth down and tells you you’re not good enough, that you need to act tougher and dominate others – that’s when you raise your own self-worth by devaluing the worth of others. That’s what Ninja teaches Chappie – how to dress, how to act, how to intimidate like a man. None of it is for Chappie’s benefit; it’s all to make Chappie more useful to Ninja as a gangster. It sells Chappie on the idea that he needs to be a certain way to earn his father’s approval, to lead a worthwhile life, and to be valued by others. Yet the whole time we’re watching, we know it’s all a lie.

This carries special meaning in a country like South Africa, where a patriarchal system maintained apartheid until 1994, and where powerful vestiges of the attitude that created it still keep black Africans ghettoized and leading lives of lower quality than their white counterparts.

There’s a lot going on in Chappie. It is not perfect in all regards, but it has no sense for biting off more than it can chew, and it chews through it all – faith, patriarchy, the afterlife, wealth distribution, domestic violence, ghettoization, corporate shock doctrine, ethics of drone warfare. I’m getting off-topic – it could have more women in it, and it would be better if it did, but that doesn’t mean it’s on the wrong side of the conversation. It’s very much asking the right questions in ways that few films dare.

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4 thoughts on “More Human Than Human — “Chappie””

  1. Don’t think I’ll see it, but definitely appreciate your again offering a thoughtful take on something other critics seem to have already written off!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everyone I know can’t understand where mainstream criticism is going wrong on this. I’ve read a dozen bad reviews of it and all but two of them harp on how uncomfortable they are with the South African accents, so…that much similarity really makes me wonder how much cultural privilege is going into those reviews.

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  2. I was looking forward to this, but didn’t get around to seeing this past weekend. Then I started to read reviews and was disappointed that most were negative. I’m happy to have read at least one positive review now, I did like District 9 and thought Elysium was so-so. You’ve rejuvenated my confidence in this film! Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everyone I know who’s seen it has really liked it. I couldn’t care less about ratings, but I find it really interesting when critics and audiences diverge like this (critics average of 40, viewers average of 75 on Metacritic, for instance). I always wonder what viewers are finding that critics can’t see. I’ll be really curious to read what you think if you end up seeing it.

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