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Life and Machines at the Bottom of the Pit

Okay, I am ready to put myself on the line and be one of the few people who have dared to give Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015) a favorable review. Quite frankly, I loved the movie, and I really feel no need to apologize for my enthusiasm. Sure, there are many reasons why certain people feel obliged to be Blomkamp Haters. His second film Elysium (2013) was a complete bomb compared to his groundbreaking first film District 9 (2009). Still, both films are dystopian visions of contemporary economics and expose the ever growing chasm between the Haves and Have Nots. The films focus out outsiders in general and put class before race, and as such they provide universal messages about the marginalized in an economic System that continues to shove the large majority of people into impoverished to the fringes while the few and the privileged live high on the hog. I have no complaints about either of the films from an ideological standpoint, even if the second as a disappointment.

Many criticize Blomkamp for the color of his skin because he is a white man making films set in South Africa, but South Africa happens to be his home, and certainly economic “violence” strikes across race in South Africa as much as it does across the rest of the world. To up the ante for the Chappie-Haters, Blomkamp chose to use the band Die Antwoord to star as the human leads. This put yet another iron on the fire of disdain from the politically correct Left. Both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have been pulled under the rug for being white while providing cultural commentary on a country that savagely endorsed racism (Apartheid), the legacy of which is strewn across the slums and economic failures that populate the Post-Apartheid South African landscape.

However, whether you endorse the color of their skin or not, when you look closely at what they are doing, both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord are offering their own form of socio-political critique, even if you don’t like its flavor. Sure, they are white, but the violent landscape of Global Capitalism cuts across race. Die Antwoord provides a form of satiric commentary which is as biting and savage as the Systems which brought us Apartheid and its aftermath – a world economy that has pushed the vast majority of the world population into the economic margins. They expose the simplistic and fetishistic views of South Africa that are perpetuated on the Left as well as the Right. Nothing is as simple as black and white in the world we live in, so to critique Blomkamp’s film or its stars based on the color of their skin or their use or re-appropriation in their art and music is missing the point of the film – a point which is universal and human.

If people could put aside their compulsion to put others in boxes (a tendency that Blomkamp addresses in all his films) and just let the film work on them on an experiential level, they may find Chappie a lot more than they initially think it is.

Certainly the film offers a story we have seen before in Sci-Fi and asks familiar questions. Can robots be more human than humans? What happens when we employ machines to police people? What is Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness, and can they be wedded? These are familiar sci-fi plot devices. But ultimately Chappie is more about humanity, and the robot Chappie is one of the most human characters to grace the multiplex screen in recent times.

Set in the dystopian near future of 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa (Blomkamp’s childhood home), the movie pays tribute to Robocop (Blomkamp’s favorite film) as it shows a city that has completely run amok in crime and corruption. A giant corporation Tetravaal profits from the economic demise by creating a force of robot police to maintain order amid chaos.

One of the robot cops is a real failure at his job. He’s a loser of a robot who keeps getting sent back to the factory for repairs. He routinely is blown to bits; his battery is fused to his chest (ultimately giving him a death sentence since it can’t be replaced); and he loses arms, legs, and ears daily on the job. He wasn’t fit to be a cop, so his designer Deon (Dev Patel) takes the robot’s scraps and decides to use them to test his experiment to infuse robots with human consciousness. In other words, Deon wants to instill Artificial Intelligence with Authentic Human Emotions. This robot will become Chappie.

Deon is kidnapped by a gang (played as themselves by Die Antwoord) who wants to use Deon to shut down all the robocops so they can go on a crime spree and get money to pay off a gang leader. When they discover that Deon has the parts and ability to build them their very own Gangster #1 Motherfucker (or as Chappie later will say Fuckermother), the gang forces Deon to build the robot for them to help them with their robberies and heists. Deon builds the robot, gives it artificial intelligence, and it is born as a baby.

Die Antwoord’s Yolandi and Ninja play themselves and become Chappie’s “parents.” While Yolandi raises him like a child (giving Chappie his name and becoming his Mommy), Ninja and his partner in crime Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) try to toughen up Chappie and turn him into the Bad Ass Gangster they need him to be. In the meanwhile, Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore. Moore is a total jackass Christian veteran bully with a mullet. He is the kind of guy who thinks everyone at the office likes him, when really they hate him. Moore wants his giant unwieldy big-balled robot the Moose to take over the streets and replace Deon’s much more efficient and tidy police force. Signourey Weaver plays the self-serving CEO of Tetravaal, the company that is literally making a killing by policing a city populated by the disenfranchised and the desperate.

The movie comes down to a lot of different things: corporate interests versus human toll; economic competition; alternative family; the brutality of the world; artificial intelligence versus consciousness; the ultimate battle between the less bad and the worse bad. In the end, it is a sincere and authentic vision of how to find a place for outsiders in an unlivable world. I was hooked from the beginning, watched it twice, and would see it again in a heartbeat. This is why.

First and foremost on my list is Chappie. The film’s director and human leads may be white, but Chappie the robot is beyond race. He is the universal underdog who everyone can root for. He is a pile of salvaged scraps – corporate refuge turned into a being who is vulnerable, gullible, smart, and completely empathetic. What’s not to love about Chappie? From the early scenes when we see him return to the factory as a beat-to-shit reject ready for the Crusher to watching him grow and learn as a child, crying for him while he is brutalized by gangs and aforementioned asswipe Vincent Moore, and cheering for him and feeling for him during all his confused and bewildered travails. We are with Chappie through the duration of the film, and we feel for and with him (if we allow ourselves to be “human”). Chappie is a mess of conflicts just like people are. He tries to please his parents and defend his family and honor while also coming to terms with concepts of economic necessity, social hierarchy, mortality and consciousness.

We root for Chappie from the beginning. Sharlto Copley “plays” Chappie, and it is his voice and his movements (which were then inscribed with animation) that bring Chappie to life. Every phrase Chappie utters went straight to my heart, whether I was crying or laughing. His innocence is heartrending as he has to learn to survive in a world where innocence is a tremendous liability. Chappie is the underdog of underdogs. He is adopted by underdogs; he makes friends with a dog, and he is taught the brutality of a dog-eat-dog world.

Every expression, every gesture brings Chappie to life. He makes a promise to Deon “his maker” that he will not kill. Because of this he refuses to participate in Ninja’s ass-saving heist. Ninja brings Chappie to a monolithic, gutted half-constructed, luxury high rise apartment building to get explosives for the heist. The building is a real-life construction that literally was never completed. It stands as a symbol of hopeless economic hope. When Chappie is left to wait with the dogs (literal fighting pit bulls), he discovers a dead pit bull. Ninja points to the dead dog and then to a caged live one and asks Chappie which one he’d rather be. Chappie says he wants “to live” so he chooses the live dog, but Blomkamp makes it clear that neither choice is a viable option. This is a brutally impossible position. The pit bulls represent people on the economic fringes who or being pushed to die or live in a cage cannibalizing scraps from other underdogs.

Chappie-trailer-Hugh-Jackman-Dev-Patel-star-in-Neill-Blomkamps-robot-movie

This is the world of Chappie, yet Chappie still maintains integrity and a painfully aware innocence amongst the carnage. It is no surprise that Chappie ends up being the most intelligent character in the film. He figures out what humans are incapable of figuring out for themselves. He certainly is a hero for our times largely because he shows that nothing is simple when you occupy the bottom rungs. Somehow the fact that Chappie is a defunct, mortal, fucked-up yet innocent robot makes the fragility, complexity and brutality of humanity much more effective.

I think that one of the reasons people panned Chappie is because the trailer made it look like some kind of WALL-E meets Short Circuit mash-up. It looked like Blomkamp was taking the road of human sincerity and sap. There is plenty of sincerity in this film, but it comes from a place of brutal reality which is not remotely sappy. Yes, we have to suspend our disbelief to feel for Chappie, but I found that quite easy to do. After all, that is what movies ask us to do. SUSPEND OUR DISBELIEF. So get over it.

Chappie lands himself in an alternative family, but he also gets a powerful and painful dose of the “real world.” This is not a world that we are going to find at Disneyland. This is a world where the Have Nots battle other Have Nots fight for pieces of the pie that corporations and global economic interests hold tight in their grip. It is a world of slums, violence, and economic despair. It is a world where people scrap and scrape for anything they can get. So it makes sense that this robot made of scraps would be our hero in a world where people really are like dogs fighting over the bones that are thrown their way.

But there is also a lot of sincerity in this world. That comes not only from Chappie but from the oddball casting of Die Antwoord as Chappie’s family. Living true to the band’s aesthetic, Yolandi and Ninja (performing as themselves except washed up and living a life of crime), the band/gang lives in a gutted industrial building which looks like a post-apocalyptic child’s playroom. Both Yolandi and Ninja deliver incredibly nuanced performances. They are both cynical and childlike. They will brutally commit crimes to survive, yet their survival centers on love of family. It’s a tough mix. They wear cast-off clothing that children would wear (a t-shirt with a kitten on it or a sweatshirt with dolphins), or they wear their own obsolete band fashions. They are repurposed cast-offs just like Chappie, and in many ways they are equally conflicted. They need to survive. They need to take up arms. They need to fight the fight, but at the same time they really just want to be a family. When their other family member Amerika is brutally murdered by AssWipe and his Moose, it is shocking and devastating.

I can’t imagine a better casting choice by Blomkamp than Die Antwoord. Pink slippers, teddy bears, TV cartoons, and plastic toys fill their squat along with firearms and drugs. This is a complicated world where economics and innocence collide.

Die Antwoord’s repurposing is an ode to times past as well as a testimony to the wretched excess of human waste that just ends up as garbage – social and cultural waste. This meshes perfectly with Blomkamp’s aesthetic. I must note that Blomkamp hand-built his robots from “scraps” before his designs went to the animation table. From dirt bikes to outdated computer monitors, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink to turn garbage into art and then into cinematic life. This can be felt in the movie. It is also reflected in such details as Chappie’s use of a stack of Sony Play Stations to transfer human consciousness.

In interviews, Blomkamp always says he’s an artist more than a filmmaker, and that definitely shows in Chappie. Whether in the magnificent trash-turned-beauty sprawl of Die Antwoord’s hideway or in the dystopian shots of Johannesberg, the film is great looking.

Speaking of repurposing, not only does the movie use Die Antwoord’s actual music playing diegetically (within the context of the narrative) on car stereos, etc to lend the movie a sense of the culturally obsolete, but the musical score by Hans Zimmer is performed on actual Moog Synthesizers (more repurposing from the past). The score is utterly fantastic, one of the best musical scores of the year for sure.

The movie also has no shortage of action and explosions as well as laughs. It pulls us in so many directions at once, ultimately leading us to the same final place – what does it really mean to be “human”? Can we be human without human bodies? Would we be better off that way?

Don’t underestimate the political economics of this movie either. While Blomkamp’s earlier films District 9 and Elysium very clearly showed the divide between those who have power and money and those who don’t, this film brilliantly shows life at the bottom of the pit, how those who are left with scraps survive, and how they ultimately maintain humanity in an inhumane world.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She is currently completing a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will be featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA this summer. She is also completing a book of her Dirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

 

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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