Tag Archives: Sigourney Weaver

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.

Silent All These Years — Why Scarlett Johansson Needs to Play Hannibal Lecter

Liver and fava beans

by Vanessa Tottle

Gabe asked me to write a second opinion on Under the Skin. Back in April. Here it is:

“One day, I’d like to see Scarlett Johansson play Hannibal Lecter.”

That’s as far as I got.

I couldn’t think of anything to say that Gabe hadn’t already, and then he rubbed it in by interviewing Michel Faber (the author) like some big show-off.

I recently came across my aborted article, and you know what? Days after the release of female celebrities’ naked photos across the internet, endearingly nicknamed “The Fappening” cause 4Chan and Reddit can go fuck themselves (I’m sure they already know how), I finally figured out why I want to see Scarlett Johansson play Hannibal Lecter.

Power.

Gabe’s been pushing for more women in protagonist roles, and he gets a little confused when something like Guardians of the Galaxy comes out. For all its awesomeness, it has a green-skinned Zoe Saldana kicking a few aliens before the guy from Parks and Rec has to save her twice. Congratulations, we got 20% of the protagonist share. That’s half what the movie gave to anthropomorphized wildlife found in your backyard at midnight.

There’s a common misconception when we talk about more movies with better parts for women. We’re not saying that this should be a requirement for EVERY SINGLE movie. Neither are we saying that there need be a quota or regulation placed on the entertainment industry. All we’re talking about is raised expectations and the changes a more aware audience can effect.

Lawrence of Arabia is implicitly about T.E. Lawrence’s homosexuality. It was made in 1962 for approximately a bazillion dollars, so it couldn’t really be about Lawrence’s sexuality in any explicit way. It had to be intimated to the audience. It achieves this in part through its all-male speaking cast.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is the best horror movie ever filmed and it doesn’t have any women in it. Since the horror in it is a fleshy Freudian conceit for men’s fear of possessing and being possessed through sex, full of snapping extendo-vagina monsters, phallic emasculations, and male pregnancy metaphors, it wouldn’t work as well if it wasn’t full of bearded, 80s uberdudes drinking, gambling, and watching porn. Besides, Mary Elizabeth Winstead came along in a prequel and proved a woman could blow shit up just as well as Kurt Russell.

MEW The Thing

The point is we aren’t saying that all movies lacking or minimizing women are terrible. We’re saying there are simply far too many of them. We are never saying that we want old ways of making movies to go away. We only want those old styles to be better balanced with new ways of writing, casting, and making movies that have thus far been resisted by a backwards entertainment industry.

I even like – hell, love – Guardians of the Galaxy. But there’s no denying they missed a big opportunity with Saldana’s character Gamora. While the men are away killing nameless henchmen by the thousands and getting a crack at the big bad, Gamora is cordoned into a one-on-one against the only other woman in a lead.

Others have written about needing more female leaders portrayed in movies, and I agree. But you know what else I want to see? I want to see women playing all those powerful character roles we reserve exclusively for men. Which brings me back to Scarlett Johansson and Hannibal Lecter. I want to be terrified by a woman in the same way movies tell me I should be terrified by a man. That’s the real power on-screen.

I want to see Cate Blanchett in Training Day telling Kerry Washington that King Kong ain’t got shit on her. I want the evil general in however many Avatar sequels they’re filming to be played by Sigourney Weaver (they’re bringing her back as a new character anyway, why not the bad guy). I’m not scared of a shouty, musclebound crew cut who looks like he soaked up too much California sun, but if Sigourney lowered her voice in anger, I wouldn’t be able to look elsewhere. I want the new Star Wars villain, the inheritor of Darth Vader himself, to be a woman. And you know who could put Daniel Craig’s James Bond in his place? A terrorist mastermind Helen Mirren.

The real staying power on screen belongs to the iconic villain. Do you see kids borrowing their parents’ bathrobes to dress up as Luke Skywalker every Halloween? No, you see them spending time and money buying and making costumes so they can be Darth Vader for a day. They understand the villain represents power, and icons of power last the test of time.

Marvel’s making a Black Widow movie with Johansson. That’s a great step, and I applaud them for having it scheduled to launch shortly after their 10th movie centered on a white guy named Chris. Way to get on that.

Now make a movie where a female villain is something other than a male villain’s henchman with daddy issues. You just got wallpaper performances out of Guy Pearce, Chris Eccleston, and Lee Pace, and they’re all great actors. Meanwhile, Karen Gillan killed it in Guardians despite limited screen time.

Change up the formula. Write more heroic women, but while you’re at it, write more powerful women who want to rule the galaxy, too. That’s why I want to see Scarlett Johansson as Hannibal Lecter one day.

“Can you hear them, Jesse Eisenberg? Can you hear the silence of the lambs?”

And Jennifer Lawrence can make you put the lotion in the basket while she dances in the skins of dead men.

How’s that for a Fappening?