The (Weird) Science of Chappie, the Movie

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Warning: this article contains spoilers.

I’m a huge fan of robot movies. Honestly, that’s one massively undermade genre: between Asimov’s dreams in I, Robot and the toy-selling tripe that is Transformers lies a vast range of unexplored creative space.

Which was why I was excited to see Chappie, a robot movie directed by Niel Blomkamp, who did the fantastic, emotionally gripping masterpiece District 9 a while back. Chappie is set in South Africa, in a future where an organization makes big bucks designing and selling police droids – think RoboCop, with far more Robo than Cop. Somewhere in this mess, a battered droid becomes sentient. And, via a complicated series of events, ends up being reared by criminals as a wannabe gangbanger and hustler.

Yep.

Now while I enjoyed the movie (there’s nothing like watching a robot toting a gun, gold swag chains and tattoos), the movie fell a bit flat on its face. It’s entertaining. Visually, it’s flat-out amazing. However, it’s not great – and here’s why:

1) THE LONE CREATOR OF AI

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This is Deon Wilson. When he’s not looking terrified, he’s busy inventing artificial intelligence.

No, seriously. The movie is based around the fact that this guy, working in his spare time at home, cooks up an honest-to-God artificial intelligence. Alone.

The Hollywood fantasy of a single individual giving birth to a new intelligence has been around for ages. I remember it from Knight Rider, where a single programmer was credited with creating KITT. Unfortunately, the real world requires a lot more resources. While it is entirely possible that a single person may make that final breakthrough, scientific progress along these lines would require lots of very smart people, lots of money, and many, many years of research. Even SkyNet, if you remember, is depicted as the product of an entire company, and not a single man hacking away on a couple of keyboards on a Red Bull sponsorship.

It would have been alright if these elements existed – if the movie began with the context that research into Ai was already fairly advanced. Ex Machina does this in a roundabout way: it depicts a search engine being used to map thought. Chappie’s world is far removed from this: in fact, even Deon’s home robot – which serves him Red Bull – seems to be a painfully slow toy in comparison to what the movie airs later. There’s no connection here. Which brings us to…

2) TETRAVAAL

Welcome to the robotics-slash-weapons company where their developers (like the two depicted here) work in a crummy, boring office space, and have crummy, boring desktop computers and occasionally play footsie with each other (like so). What happened to professionals working in the lab?

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Throughout the movie, Deon is consistently praised for his brilliance – and through the movie it looks like the product of his design is the only thing that this company is actually selling. Despite being integral to Tetravaal’s success, he apparently doesn’t even get his own office. Or a CEO who seems believable and intelligent (or at least motivated). Or even a team of research assistants. Sad.

3) CHAPPIE’s WALL-E PERSONALITY

CHAPPIE, when he gains awareness, acts like a child. In fact, he – it – acts like most mammalian children – retreating from loud noises, learning by repetition and so on.

However, just because animals have these basic instincts doesn’t mean a machine – or a machine intelligence – should have any of that. In fact, I found CHAPPIE’s human-like personality endearingly stupid. Yes, it makes for a more huggable character, but this belief that emergent intelligence will be human-like – and even develop its own ethics on the way – is just off. There’s absolutely no reason for a machine intelligence capable of learning to act as a human, or even interact with the world as one. We have a whole lot of chemical and biological lineage – and baggage – that a fresh sentience would not be burdened with.

Where the movie succeeds, though, it succeeds well enough to make you completely forget all of this. At least for a while. 

Most critics focus on the movie’s play on the ethics of creating and manipulating an intelligence. Yet for me, the most poignant scene – and the most powerful theme – is when Chappie, cast out to fend for himself, is set upon by a gang of boys and brutally beaten.

“Please may you stop?” pleads the robot, not understanding the reason for all this this hate, as the pipe descends on his spine and he is knocked to the ground. “Why you do this?”

In that moment, not only do we see a mechanical child getting his face kicked in, but we see an emerging intelligence look out in terrified wonder at the suddenly savage humans and wonder why, just why, what logical basis there could be for them to do what they do. The humans are relentless; they beat him, they throw rocks at him, they set him on fire.

And later, when a burned, battered CHAPPIE finally finds a place to rest, he stumbles upon a dog. This creature is by far the friendliest thing he meets: it has no hate for him, no ulterior motives, nothing but a small dose of friendship, one living being to another.

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In that moment, it is not the two-legged homo sapiens that is the most humane – it is an animal. The barbarity of the more intelligent animal is suddenly made clear. This is how an alien would see us: violent, irrational, hostile creatures, ruling over simpler, kinder folk with lashes and leashes and all manner of agendas.

“Why you do this?”

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