One last mad trip to Jo-burg: The flawed brilliance of Chappie

After mixed results after the explosive District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s latest effort Chappie arrives on the scene once again to lukewarm reviews. Jack Brindelli, looks beneath the film’s ungainly outer shell, to reveal a beautiful message within it’s circuitry.

I make no secret of the fact I am unconditionally a Neill Blomkamp fan. His detractors often cite a lack of lacking subtlety and finesse as his work’s major downfall, with his somewhat black and white allegory of class-based inequality Elysium (2013) taking the brunt of the criticism. But even in the supposedly unfinessed haphazard film there are flashes of brilliance (the literally inhuman Job Centre for one) that show for all Blomkamp’s faults, he is a world-class sci-fi satirist. That is not something that restraint or understatement is necessary for, as you can see from his explosive début District 9 (2009); it’s about blowing up the contradictions in society between the promises of mainstream ideology and the reality it actually delivers, it is about taking dominant ideology to its logically absurd conclusion.  

In District 9, we saw a supremely clever metaphor not just of South Africa’s sad past of racial apartheid, but of institutionalised bigotry within neo-liberal society as a whole. The “Prawn” aliens forced into internment camps in modern Johannesburg are a visual short-hand for oppressed people of all sorts, though most obviously, ethnic minorities. The low level corporate bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s cinematic muse) finds himself first of all living a nightmare for any racist then, when he begins turning into a “Prawn” – it’s basically the equivalent of him turning into a black man.

But the terror he goes through in the early stages of his metamorphosis are not purely of disgust at the concept of becoming a life-form he treats as inferior – or most likely he would seek help a damn sight quicker. The way that he tries desperately to conceal his condition from his wife, and his father-in-law/boss underlies a growing realisation that soon he too will be treated as little more than a cockroach beneath the shoe of a tyrannical elite. It is at this point, the man who believed what he was doing was for the good of the world discovers the truly monstrous reality his support of segregation has helped deliver.

So, with his previous work in mind, I was extremely excited to hear about Blomkamp’s latest project – and perhaps his last set in South Africa, with his taking the helm of the Alien franchise – Chappie. It seems everyone is making films about robots suddenly – which isn’t necessarily a surprise – considering over the past half-decade, people have been rising to fight their rulers across the world. Cinema has sought to reflect and commodify that global zeitgeist as a result; rebellious machines enable that, as synthetics are another popular signifier of the ruled who rail against their rulers – the term robot being derived from the Czech for ‘slave’.

However, in the film-industry, as with any other communication medium dominated by corporate interest – there is a deep distrust, even a resentment directed toward such subversive analogies. As I pointed out last month in my review of Ex Machina, those who hold Hollywood’s purse-strings survive and prosper economically through exploitation – so robots stand, for them, as a nightmarish metaphor for the mass of ordinary people who present a very real threat to the economic system they benefit form, to their way of life itself. This was summed up spectacularly by the trailer pre-facing Chappie for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The film seems set to be a crass, bloated exhibition of competing egos and mindless hyper-masculinity, where snarky banter will once again blind-side an all-too-forgiving fan-base to a deeply troubling conservative subtext. In the case of Avengers Assemble that was justifying secretive and unaccountable governmental bodies in a post-9/11 America (you’ll have noticed aliens who mastered space travel couldn’t pilot ships without clattering through every skyscraper in New York); in Age of Ultron that seems to be that the team have assembled to take down a robotic chief antagonist who literally proclaims “You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.” Following on from that, a sinister rendition of “I’ve got no strings” from Pinocchio (1940) plays, and Ultron declares “There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.” Which of course is a brilliantly naked piece of Slave-owner logic. “We can never free the slaves or they’ll just kill us all.” Since the human nature slave owners understand and live by is brutal and exploitative, the nature of the slaves must similarly be so; give them chance to exercise it, and they’ll make the world even worse.

And that’s why I so anticipated Chappie. One last Blomkamp sci-fi satire, one last smack to the face of so much of Hollywood’s ideological hegemony, one last mad trip to Jo-burg. And I have to say I left a little bit disappointed, from a stylistic point at any rate. Partially that’s thanks to a lack of commitment to any particular style. The opening references to Blomkamp’s earlier work by framing the film as an expository documentary are all too short lived. The faux-documentary edge is swiftly ditched instead for gun-toting absurdity with the sudden and unwelcome arrival of Yolandi Visser and Ninja from the South African rap act Die Antwood. This is where things begin to go awry for Chappie – both as an on screen character, and generally as a film.

Die Antwood aren’t bad actors per se – hell, their whole musical career is an act, where two Cape Town poshos pretend to be bizarre parodic ‘gangsters’, played for laughs. They are essentially the Ali G of South Africa (a fact which escaped one sneering fellow viewer, who proclaimed “Ninja is such a bad actor – they probably used his real name in the film cos he’s so bad at pretending.” His real name…) – and if used wisely they could have added just the right level of absurdity to proceedings to take the edge of what might otherwise have been another 2 hour Marxist lecture from Blomkamp. Unfortunately though, with the obnoxious electronic rave soundtrack, the cartoonish stylised violence, and the “ironic” adolescent fetishisation of bling lasting the duration of the picture, the remainder of the film lends itself tonally to a 2 hour Die Antwood music video instead. And considering the sheer gravitas of the grainy, documentary-style of District 9, or the ideological grandeur and cinematic scale of Elysium, that’s a considerable step-down from the towering stature from his previous work – particularly with the tantalising reference to those previous works being dangled so briefly in front of our faces.

Of course, that’s not to say there was nothing likeable either. Certainly, there was plenty to think on; particularly the nature of Chappie’s Artificial Intelligence itself. One recurring complaint that I overheard in the Vue foyer time and again was about Chappie’s childish demeanour – but I feel that was the film’s greatest philosophical strength. The question was raised, not least by a friend who hated Sharlton Copley’s chirpy droid, why the hell would a machine need to waste time learning to function like a human when it can be programmed to function as one from creation? And that’s an interesting question – because we see the other side of that in Ex Machina – the character of Ava is very much shown to be the product of one man’s work directly, and indirectly, of society. As a result, even when she is seen to be capable of plotting her own brutal route of escape, it seems to have been incepted by the puppet-master.

Chappie on the other hand presents a far more interesting, if less stylistically polished representation of consciousness. Certainly there is less 1980s synth, there are fewer protracted and overt ponderings on the nature of “humanity”, and there are no protracted, dewy-eyed sighings as robots and man conduct pseudo-romance to keep the black-t-shirt brigade happy. But because of that, Chappie seems less like a constructed automaton, simply dancing to the whims of his creator – and instead is capable of constructing his own systems of meaning – which says a hell of a lot more about our own living consciousness in the real world than Ex Machina did. We may not be responsible for our environment, or the history which proceeds us; but we are not pure products of it either. We, and we alone, come to interpret it, through the tools we pick up as part of a long life of learning experiences.

2015’s litany of other robotic literature seems geared toward a deterministic cynicism, purporting the belief an individual’s consciousness to be a pure product of their environmental circumstance. In this way; the escape of Ava in Ex Machina takes on a more sinister tone, as we wonder what other aspects of this pre-determined consciousness she must have taken on. I describe this as deterministic cynicism, because in this way the logic of the status-quo is reproduced, but consciously. We are invited to share in the critique of the way things are, to appreciate how bad ‘humanity’ has become, but ultimately also to accept it as a state of nature, that even conscious, intelligent beings cannot improve upon. If we could be programmed from birth with certain interpretive tools determined by someone else; our thoughts would be no freer than a chess-playing computer programme – learning to function in a way deemed natural and necessary, but nothing beyond that. Even a genius machine in this world, with instant, wireless access to every page of the internet could only ever interpret that information in the same way as its master; it would simply be a better manipulator, exploiter, or murderer. In that case, why even try to change the world – why overthrow slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, when you’ll just end up with a new, different looking elite?
Chappie salvages the notion of agency though. Whilst he does perform his share of monkey-see monkey-do reactionism, and whilst he is moralised by his ‘creator’ to be better, he cannot simply conform to either way of living just for the sake of meeting external requirements of those around him. Chappie has to learn for himself, from his own unique life experiences, the “right” way to behave. He forms his own interpretive tools; adapting the ideas preceding his own to help him read meaning into the world for himself. That is the revolutionary message at the heart/circuit-board of Chappie. Human nature is fluid – it doesn’t have to be definitively good or bad – and that means we might make mistakes, but it also means we can learn from them – and build for a better, fairer world in the process. There is, in that case, all the reason still to stand up and fight for a brave new world in the place of this cynical and divided old one. If only that message didn’t have to come wrapped in a drum and bass, strobe lit montage of foul-mouthed gun-slinging. Chappie remains something of an enigma then;but then again, for an unconditional Blomkamp fan, amidst the sea of sheened yet vacuous sci-fi around it, the central concept was still well worth one last mad trip to Jo-burg, despite it’s flawed execution.

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