Saturday, March 7, 2015

Short Circuit: CHAPPIE

Chappie is another of writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi allegory actioners. He’s great at setting the conditions for asking thought provoking questions, but even better at only skimming the surface on the way to making things blow up. With District 9’s alien apartheid and Elysium’s space station of inequality, he creates reflections of complex real-world problems, but makes of them plots saying the bulk of the solutions are as easy as pushing a button. A few keystrokes and a bunch of fighting solve everything. To his credit, these endings kick up ambiguity in tenuous resolutions, but the way there muddies the allegories for the sake of forcing firefights and gory splatter. His latest starts with fascinating questions about computer morality and mortality, and ends with the carnage and plot holes you’d sadly expect.

Following the usual Blomkamp blueprint, Chappie creates a world of incredible production detail and fuzzily rendered connective tissue. It looks great, slick cinematography and dusty design. But as for the hows and whys, it asks you to just go with it. The film takes place in a near-future Johannesburg gripped by a massive crime problem that forces the police to supplement their ranks with hundreds of robot cops. Hardly RoboCops, they’re human-shaped mindless drones, bulletproof, obedient, and unflappable. That all makes a certain amount of sci-fi sense, in that if you squint you can almost see how that world operates.

Brisk sales make the robots’ corporate master (Sigourney Weaver) happy. But their designer (Dev Patel) has the soul of an artist. He’s made an artificial intelligence program his boss won’t let him try. He thinks he’ll make robots that can think and feel, appreciate art, write poems. She doesn’t understand why he’d think a weapon’s company would want such a thing. And so the scientist sneaks a busted robot out of the factory to install the software in secret. In the process, a gang (South African rap duo Die Antwoord and Jose Pablo Cantillo) abducts the man and his droid. They want robotic help with a heist so they can pay off debt owed to an even worse gang. At gunpoint, Patel agrees to reboot the bot and teach him to assist in a robbery.

But once the robot awakens with freshly coded intelligence, and brilliantly convincing CGI work, he’s an immediate personified presence. The group calls him Chappie. The childlike machine grows, always curious, learning quickly, eager to please, emotions churning. He’s also a more nuanced character than anyone else on screen. With a chirpy voice and gangly movements from Sharlto Copley, the film views Chappie with a sympathetic eye, watching as he’s torn between the criminals he views as parents and the good man he calls his creator. They may be flesh and blood, but they’re signifiers. He’s the one fleshed in. Early scenes of Chappie bonding with the people around him are funny and sweet, with a light spike of humor and creepiness to his artificial movements.

As a metaphor for parenting, the story’s an obvious parable about influences on a growing brain. Thornier are the more philosophical crises that come with being alive. What is consciousness? What is a soul? What does it mean to know you are mortal? Like all the best sci-fi, intriguing questions such as these animate Chappie, for a while at least. It spends some time as a serious and sincere exploration of self-awareness and the limits of human expression. Is Chappie a being or a thing? I hooked into the emotion of this story, caring against all odds for this naïve robot learning about the world and becoming self-actualized. Will he decide to be a kind robot or a remorseless criminal? It’s a coming-of-age story with the peculiar tension of wondering if the main character is truly alive or if he’s just coded to think he is.

Alas, this entertainment’s ambiguity is briskly, at times bizarrely, settled as an earnest wonderment becomes a grimly effective, ridiculously violent, actioner in an extended bloody conclusion. It involves gang warfare and the culmination of a fairly silly subplot involving an intense rival robo-lawman designer played by Hugh Jackman of all people. (He’s an ex-solider determined to bring his heavily weaponized behemoth mech to market at any cost, strutting around in khaki shorts and a polo, waving his gun and ego around.) Countless rounds of ammunition are spilled and people are torn apart in graphic detail. It’s dutifully exciting, but serves to close off the story’s thematic exploration, especially when it solves the nature of consciousness in a hilarious overly literal way. In the end, it’s ridiculous and pat, with nutso preposterous post-human results. But because I had locked into the emotional journey of the movie’s peculiar protagonist, I was able to ride it out, puzzling over its final unsatisfying implications while clinging to the sincerity behind its cold mechanical surface.

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