These things I know to be true:
I have a Maker. I have a body. I am a soul. My soul will live forever, but only because of what my Maker has done for me. There is both good and evil within me.
You may believe these things as well.
Apparently we’re no different from a robot named Chappie, who also holds these truths to be self-evident.
This particular bot is the title character in Chappie, the smart new sci-fi film from Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote and directed the movie. Blomkamp has fast established himself as one of today’s sharpest creators of science fiction fare, right up there with Christopher Nolan. Blomkamp burst out of the gate with the brilliant District 9 (2009) before he had even turned 30. He stumbled a bit with 2013’s Elysium, a nice idea that even the director has admitted wasn’t executed very well.
But he’s back on track with Chappie, the latest in a long line of films about how artificial intelligence inevitably morphs into something far beyond what its Makers—er, programmers—intended, sometimes with a sinister turn, sometimes not.
Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Short Circuit, I Robot, The Iron Giant, WarGames, The Matrix, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And in May, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Self-aware, sentient droids have been popping up in books and on the big screen for a long time, and will certainly keep doing so. It won’t be long till we see Ultron, a good bot gone bad, try to destroy the world.
Chappie is one of those movies where the synthetic protagonist can be both good and evil, depending on who’s pushing his buttons—literally and figuratively.
The film begins with Johannesburg (Blomkamp’s hometown) experiencing relative peace, thanks to a police force that includes hundreds of robocop “scouts”—virtually indestructible and well-armed humanoids that keep bad guys out of business. (Unlike the original RoboCop, though, these droids are entirely mechanical; there’s no human brain inside, calling the shots.)
But bad guys can’t lay low forever, and now they’re fighting back, with more powerful artillery. One particular cop bot, Scout No. 22, is banged up badly. When 22 returns to HQ for a tuneup, he’s deemed beyond repair and tossed aside, destined for destruction. A worker slaps a sticker on 22’s head that has just one word: “CRUSH.”
This army of police droids is the product of Tetravaal, a robotics company. The bots are designed and programmed by super-nerd Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), an idealist who really does want to do the right thing. Meanwhile, fellow nerd Vincent (Hugh Jackman in a bad haircut that would make Wolverine slash his face off) has created another robotic beast, Moose, that he believes is superior to Deon’s battle bots. Why? Because Vincent’s creation is controlled by a human at the helm, while Deon’s are controlled by mere software.
Vincent argues that his metallic monster—reminiscent of RoboCop’s ED-209—at least has morals, while Deon’s creations do not. But of course that’s a prime set-up for the film’s conclusion: Is a supposedly “moral” being, also capable of immorality, superior to an amoral machine that runs on a program?
I’m getting ahead of myself.
While Scout 22 is headed for destruction, Deon, downing Red Bulls through the night, is working on something else at home: Artificial intelligence. But he needs to test it, so he steals 22 from the dumpster at the office, and tosses it into the back of his van. On his way home, Deon is kidnapped by a trio of baddies who have hatched a plan: If they nab the mastermind behind all the robocops, they can make him shut them down—or better yet, go rogue and help the criminals rule Jo-burg again.
The now captive Deon loads the A.I. software into 22’s “brain,” and voila, the robot becomes like a human child, ready for training. The crooks name him “Chappie,” and want to raise him up to be a bad-ass bot, fighting on their side. But Deon tells Chappie that he is Chappie’s “Maker,” and that Chappie should always do the right thing.
Chappie ends up very human in this regard—wanting to do good, but being taught to do bad. So he basically ends up with Romans 7 bouncing around his cerebral circuitry: “I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom. 7:21-24)
I know, it sounds preposterous. But whether Blomkamp intended it or not, these ideas actually play out in the second half of the movie. While Chappie regards Deon as his “Maker,” he regards two baddies, lovers Yolandi and Ninja, as his “Mommy” and “Daddy.” Yolandi smothers Chappie with motherly love, while Ninja just wants to teach him how to kill.
In one fascinating conversation with Yolandi, Chappie comes to believe that he has a soul that is entirely separate from his body. This becomes important as Chappie’s irreparable battery begins to lose power. He realizes he’s going to die, but his soul will live on—and that it will end up in a new, imperishable body. Yes, that. (It’s reminiscent of this wonderful scene from my favorite animated movie, The Iron Giant.)
So, Chappie ends up doing the bidding of his “Mommy” and “Daddy,” joining them on a crime spree, while also being nagged by his “conscience.” Predictably, the police robots malfunction, and Vincent gets his big change to release the Kraken, er, unleash Moose in an effort to restore law and order.
And yeah, we get some pretty freaking awesome robot fights. Rock ’em, sock ’em!
The film doesn’t end on the most profound note, and you’ll probably see it coming. But I did find it interesting that Blomkamp kept exploring those biblical ideas—the ones cited at the top of this review—all the way through.
Some critics are blasting Chappie for being derivative—saying that this has all been done before, robots becoming self-aware, wreaking havoc, and so on. And on the surface, they’re partly right. But scratch beneath the surface, and there’s some spiritual meat.
“Every child comes into the world full of promise, and none more so than Chappie,” says the film’s official synopsis. “Like any child, Chappie will come under the influence of his surroundings—some good, some bad—and he will rely on his heart and soul to find his way . . .”
If Chappie is a child, I think of this quote from an old chap himself:
“Never tell a child you have a soul,” George MacDonald once said. “Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.”
I don’t know if filmmaker Blomkamp gets that. But Chappie certainly did.
Chappie is rated R for violence, language and brief nudity. If there was nudity, it was so fleeting as to hardly notice. But there’s plenty of violence and language. Still, the film makes for great discussion fodder about the relationship between Creator and creation, and the relation of the soul to the body, and vice versa. Lots of spiritual meat here, beneath the chaos and havoc.
Mark Moring is a CT Editor at Large and a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta. If he could choose any movie robot to have, it would be The Iron Giant.